On the last day of Passover, we recite the Yizkor prayers as pause on this holy day to remember our loved ones, those special people in our lives who are no longer with us: parents and grandparents, siblings, spouses, and children, who gave our lives so much meaning and helped shape who we are and where we are going, and who helped anchor us to our past, our history, and our roots.
I want to tell you a true story. This story was told in a recent book on Passover by a gifted Orthodox rabbi and teacher whom I have had the opportunity to meet and listen to: Rabbi Benjamin Blech. Here is Rabbi Blech’s story:
“I was browsing for an item of Jewish interest in an antique store in lower Manhattan. What I found may me weep. But soon I realized that tears were not enough. It was then that I vowed to tell this story, to ensure that nothing like it happens again.
You see, I was a witness to a murder. Not the murder of a person. No, perhaps something more horrible. The murder of memory. The callous, cruel indifference to the most important message of our tradition and especially the holiday of Passover.
“What I spotted in that store was a seder plate that I immediately recognized. How could I not? It was the focus of my eulogy for Sam, a survivor of Auschwitz. What a tale it had been. The Germans rounded up all the Jews in his little town for deportation. Others may have believed the grand lie that they were merely being transported to another site to be used for labor. Sam was too smart for that. He knew they would be murdered. He believed Hitler and understood that the Nazis wanted to eliminate every Jew as well as every reminder of their heritage. So he did what he could to save some reminder of his precious Jewish heritage. How he wanted to save Torah scrolls and the silver from the holy ark. But he had so little time and he could dig a hole only so big.
“Sam buried one item: his family’s Passover beautiful silver seder plate, passed down from generation to generation. Fifty paces from his favorite tree in his back yard, Sam hid the seder plate. He called the tree ‘his etz chaim,’ his tree of life. If he survived and could return to his home and find his seder plate, he would have foiled the German plan to destroy every remnant of Judaism.
“Sam could never explain how he and all of his family and friends survived. In his heart, he believed that because of his buried seder plate and his tree of life, the two things he thought about every day, that his holy mission was to save and cherish the traditions of our people, kept him alive.
“After the war, Sam went back to his town, returned to his home, dug up his seder plate and lived to celebrate dozens of Passovers with his seder plate until he died.”
You know what I am about to tell you next.
Rabbi Blech was in an antique store and he recognized the seder plate, on sale in the shop!
“‘Where was it from?’ he asked the store owner. ‘Oh, it was part of an estate sale by the children.’
“‘You see,’ the store owner said, ‘he was religious but his children weren’t.’
“These are the words of the store owner — ‘they don’t really have any need for items like these.’
“The buried treasure of the past had become the discarded trash of the generation that followed.”
How I wish that this story was rare. But I have seen too often that we live in an age that doesn’t understand the meaning of memory. We live in an age of unsentimental disregard for the past. The sad truth is that we live in a throwaway world that gives equal weight to used clothes and furniture, old cars and old family heirlooms.
How many prayer books and Bibles, some with yahrzeit dates and histories of families inscribed in them, have been dropped off in our synagogue office, and in synagogues all over America, because the people who inherited these siddurim and Bibles, menorahs and candlesticks, had no use for them and no desire to clutter their homes with old dusty books and memorabilia.
“Unless we remember,” the English novelist Edward Morgan Foster put it so beautifully, “we cannot understand.” Our possessions, whether they be books, furniture, or items of Judaica, possess the unique ability to stir up memories that keep alive those whom we deeply loved.
I have two of my favorite possessions with me now, an afghan and a silver serving spoon.
My grandmother made the sweater for me. She knitted me sweaters when I was a baby. I don’t have them anymore. She knitted me sweaters when I was a toddler. I don’t have them anymore. But when I was a teenager, maybe on my way to college, my grandmother made me this afghan. I love this. When I used to watch TV at night in the colder climates I lived in, I would cover myself with something made just for me, the oldest grandson of Mamie and Jules Kerbel. It was the last thing she would make for me.
The afghan and the spoon along with her vacuum cleaner, are the possessions that I have that I never will let go of. Because my grandmother, who now is gone 34 years, never will make me another one. Probably no one will ever make me another afghan. I hope the one she made for me never ends up in a Goodwill drop box.
I also want to show you a kiddush cup, which was given to my wife, Melissa, by a friend. His name was Bernie Katzen. I show it to everyone who shows an interest in our kiddush cup collection.
When Bernie died he bequeathed this to Melissa. Bernie had no children of his own. In the 1950s and 1960s, before the United States gave military assistance to Israel, the only funds it received were for cultural aid; the United States supported numerous cultural institutions, such as the Israel Museum and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
The charismatic late mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, mentions Bernie in his book, “For Jerusalem.” President Eisenhower named Bernie to be a cultural ambassador of the United States to Israel. He made many trips to Israel on behalf of our country.
This kiddush cup is now 60 years old. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gave it to Bernie in recognition of his efforts to provide cultural and academic aid to support to the State of Israel. How meaningful it is to Melissa and to me that Melissa now has the honor of working for the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra!
How thankful am I that Bernie didn’t sell this to a pawn shop or antique store, giving it instead to someone whom he knew would use it and treasure it as long as they lived.
So today, I ask us to treasure and value the meaning of memories. Whether it is memorabilia like Sam’s seder plate or Melissa’s kiddush cup or my afghan. Or more importantly, I ask you to treasure the memories of our loved ones, whom we remember today with honor and respect. Each of our loved ones taught us, nurtured us, sustained us. They gave us possessions; they gave us wisdom. They taught us how to play cards and drive a car; they may have taught us how to ride a bike, cook a brisket or sing a song.
“Remember”, the Bible commands us, “because memory is the secret of eternal life.” It is why we have survived throughout the ages. It is how our parents and other loved ones live on in us, even as we hope that we will live on in the hearts of our children and descendants.
The poet Yehudah Amichai wrote: “There are candles that remember for twenty-four hours, as the label says. And there are candles that remember for eight hours.
And there are eternal candles that promise the memory of a man to his son.”
May we sharpen our ability to remember what is truly important, may we reclaim our lost possessions and hope that we too will live lives worthy of being remembered.
Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel is the associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter. He is also the national rabbinic campaign chair of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and is on the Global Jewish Communities committee of UJA Federation of New York.