Shaarei Shamayim

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Today is a special day in the Jewish calendar and a special day in the American calendar and they both have the same theme—remembering those who are no longer with us. For the American people, today is Memorial Day and for Jews it is Yizkor. Today we Jews pause to remember those taken from our midst and today Americans pause to remember those who fell in battle. 2 special days coming together as one, and combined they present us with a powerful message.

I never served in the Armed Forces, but I’m keenly aware of the fact that I am able to be a rabbi in what Michael Medved affectionately calls, “the greatest country on Gd’s green earth”—the country which has given Jews unparalleled freedom and opportunity—only because more than one million Americans have given their lives in service to their country.

For most Americans, however, today will be just another vacation day—sleeping late in the morning and going to the mall to see what’s on sale. I don’t know if there are too many Americans who even know why May 30th was chosen as Memorial Day. May 30th was the day that the American Civil War came to an end. And since it’s more convenient to have a holiday on a Monday than on a Wednesday, the day got moved to the last Monday in May. This week’s newspapers were filled with ads for “Special Memorial Day Sales.” But I didn’t see a single ad or TV program that mentioned the Civil War or showed the face of a single fallen American soldier killed in action—not one. 

How different we Jewish people are! The State of Israel also has a Memorial Day—Yom Hazikaron; it’s the day before Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. Naomi Ragen beautifully describes it:

          Remembrance Day in Israel is like nothing else, I dare say, anywhere in the world. The country simply shuts down all distractions. Restaurants, bars, discos, close down. Radio and television channels spend the day telling the stories of the fallen, showing old pictures and new videos of soldiers who died 5 months or 30 years ago.

          And the programs all emphasize the same thing: the man’s childhood, his home, his parents, his wife or girlfriend. The silly pictures from his high school parties. The smiling face of the little boy dressed up for Purim. The words of friends, who never stop mourning, who never forget. And for one day, every single person in Israel who identifies with the Jewish State, and the lives of the people who live here, feel these men and women are part of their own past, their own family.

Yes, the way America remembers its fallen soldiers and the way Israel remembers its fallen soldiers are quite different. But why is that? To some degree, it has to do with size. Israel is a small country. The death of each and every soldier is felt in a very personal, intimate way. As Naomi Ragen continues:

They all live in the next room or the next house, or at the very most, an hour’s bus ride away from the central bus station…there is not a man, woman or child in Israel who has more than 1 or 2 degrees of separation between themselves and every precious boy or girl in uniform who falls defending our lives from real bombs, real bullets, real slaughter.

The United States, on the other hand, is a very large country, spread apart from sea to shining sea. When soldiers fall in battle, they become statistics—not real people. Only for their families is their loss felt. For the rest of us, we remain untouched. I can prove it to you! I bet there are not many here who know anyone who died in the Vietnam War; maybe 1 or 2—maybe. But every single Israeli knows lots of people who died in the wars of ’67, ’73, Lebanon or Gaza.

And there’s another reason why it seems that Israelis remember their losses of war in a way that Americans do not. In Israel their enemies are just around the corner. Sderot—which has been bombarded by thousands of Hamas rockets—is only a few hundred yards from Gaza. Very little separates Israeli forces on the Golan Heights and Hezbollah’s terrorists in Lebanon or soldiers in Syria. The fighting is very “up front,” close and personal. For us as Americans, the deaths take place in faraway places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam or Korea. And so it’s just the families that really feel the loss. As someone once said, “The death of one person is a tragedy, while the death of a million is a statistic.”

Now I love the American military and how its volunteer army selflessly fights to keep us safe. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I don’t understand why one of the 1st things they give you when you enter the U.S. Army is a “dog tag.” What kind of name is that? People are not dogs! They give you a “dog tag” which has your serial number on it. Whereas the 1st thing they give you when you enter the Israeli army is…do you know? They give you a Tanach—a Bible that has your name inscribed in it, signed by your commanding officer so that you may know and never forget that you are a person and not just a number. 

And that brings us to one last difference between Memorial Day and Yom Hazikaron—between the American way and the Jewish way, and that difference has to do with numbers. You see, in the American system 1+1=2. In Jewish arithmetic one equals infinity. We see that every time Israel exchanges hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for one or 2 Israeli soldiers. On paper, these prisoner exchanges make no mathematical sense. But in Jewish arithmetic, it makes a lot of sense! In Jewish spiritual arithmetic, every person—with no exception—is of infinite value. And this is why Israel will pay almost any price it has to in order to save one human life. It is Jewish spiritual arithmetic that teaches: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved the world.”

Do you know why we sit shiva for 7 days? Because the world was created in 7 days. For us, every human being is a world—a world the likes of which has never been before and never will be again. That’s why Jews don’t talk about body counts. We talk about human beings; fathers and brothers and sons and daughters, husbands and wives—and each one counts.

With this in mind, let me point out to you a nuance in the Yizkor service. How do we say Yizkor? We don’t say, “May Gd remember the souls of my parents and my siblings and all my relatives?” Instead, we say the Yizkor prayer over and over again—once for a mother with her name and then once again for a father with his name, and then once again for a husband and wife with their name, and so on. Each one gets an individual Yizkor. Why? Because each one was an individual, each one was a person, and deserves to be treated as such in life and in death. 

Let me tell you the amazing story of Maurice Schechter as told by Rabbi Joseph Mizrachi. Maurice, a secular Jew from London, was sitting on an airplane on his way to Israel. Next to him was Mr. Goldstein, a religious Jew. All through the flight Goldstein tried to convince Maurice to be more observant—to put on tefillin and eat kosher. “No, no,” he said, “leave me alone. I’m a survivor of the Holocaust and I’m done with Gd.”

          After they left the airport Goldstein thought, “We were talking for 5 hours and I can’t believe I didn’t even get Maurice’s phone number. Perhaps, if I was able to keep up with him I might eventually convince him to be more religious.” The whole way to Jerusalem and the week that followed he ate his heart out about it.

          It was just before Rosh Hashanah and Goldstein was scheduled to spend the holidays at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. They had hired a fabulous new cantor—a rising star—and he couldn’t wait to hear him.

          Rosh Hashanah passed with beautiful services and then came Yom Kippur. The Shacharit morning service on Yom Kippur is the longest of the year and it was their custom to take a break on Yom Kippur before Yizkor. Mr. Goldstein went out for a walk in the street to get some fresh air. Who did he bump into? Maurice Schechter, sitting on a bench eating a sandwich! You have to be a real secular Jew to go as far as to eat a sandwich in public on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. Goldstein saw him and said, “Maurice, I can’t believe I found you. I haven’t stopped thinking about you.” And when he saw the sandwich he added, “How could you be eating a sandwich on Yom Kippur?”

          Maurice responded, “I told you I’m done with Gd. I’m not a hypocrite. I’ll do what I want. ”

          “OK Maurice, let’s not get into this again. You told me about your son Pinchas and that the Nazis had killed him and since then you’re finished with Gd. In a few minutes they will continue the service at the King David Hotel with Yizkor. You’re done with Gd but you’re not done with your son. Whyd don’t you come in and say Yizkor for your son and give the cantor his name to make a special Moley Rachamim memorial prayer for him.”

          Maurice hesitated. He thought about it and in the end he threw away the sandwich and went with Goldstein inside the King David Hotel. Towards the end of Yizkor he walked up to the cantor and asked him to make a special Moley Rachamim memorial prayer for his son. The Cantor asked for his son’s name and he replied, “Pinchas ben Moshe.” The cantor asked him for his son’s last name because it was his custom to include last names in this prayer. Maurice then told him, “Pinchas ben Moshe Schechter.”

          The cantor starred down at him and his face turned white. He screamed, “Abba, father, for 35 years I’ve been looking for you. I can’t believe you came all the way to me in the middle of Yom Kippur.”

          Can you imagine the shock that descended upon the congregation? Hugs and tears…for an hour no one could stop crying. 

What is the chance that Maurice Schechter would go to Israel and sit on a bench in the streets of Jerusalem rebelling against Gd by eating a sandwich on Yom Kippur because he was angry with Gd for losing his son…and a religious Jew would take a break from his davening and find him and bring him into shule? Just imagine if he would not have agreed to go with him. The Talmud teaches: Yeysh adam shekoneh olamo b’rega achat, “Sometimes a person can completely turn his life around in one moment.” With one decision he can change everything.

My friends, such is the power of Yizkor…to unite lost souls and, in the process, for lost souls to rediscover their true selves. At Yizkor we are reunited for a few moments with our lost loved ones. They might not have been the rich and famous. They might not have been stars in any game or media. All they were was mommy and daddy, bubbie and zaidi…and all they did was make our world a better place in which to live and help make each of us a mentch. And they did it one by one by one. Each human being is a whole world in and of himself.

And so on this Memorial Day Yizkor service, let us pray on behalf of the American soldiers who died and our own loved ones who lived. T’hi nishmatam tz’ruror b’tzror hachaim, “May their souls be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.” Hashem hu nachalatam v’yanuchu b’shalom al mishkvotam, “Gd is their portion, may they rest in peace and may we so live to honor their lives by how we live. And let us say, “Amen!”

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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