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Yizkor: Singing While Mourning

October 7, 2015

As we prepare to recite Yizkor, I want to dedicate this d’var Torah to the memory of the recent victims of terror in Israel.  While there have unfortunately been several victims and several attacks, the murder last week of Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin have hit home.  Though I did not know Rav Eitam, the Henkin family is familiar to me and I’m sure to many of you.  Rav Eitam’s great grandfather was Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin one of the leading Rabbinic figures in America from the 20th century and the rabbis upon whose rulings the Ezras Torah Luach are based.  His father, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin is a posek who has authored a number of groundbreaking teshuvot about women’s role in Orthodoxy.  Rav Eitam’s mother, Rabbanit Chana Henkin is the founder of Nishmat, one of the leading institutions for women’s learning and Torah leadership.  I have many friends and students who studied there.

Not only am I horrified by the gruesome details — the thought of four children witnessing the murder of their parents and  Rabbanit Henkin’s chilling promise that the grandparents will now raise the children as Eitam and Na’ama would have.  I’m sure that many of us saw the chilling video of 9-year old Matan saying kadish for his parents, but for the connections I mentioned above, this hits home in a way that some of the other attacks have not.

Yizkor is always an emotionally charged moment in the holiday, but more so today on Shemini Atzeret. Whereas we normally say Yizkor on the final day of chag, we recite it today on Shemini Atzeret and not on Simchat Torah when we might expect it to be said.   We go from Yizkor this morning to dancing hakafot this evening.  In Israel it is more stark where yizkor and hakafot literally follow each other.

On Simchat Torah, of course we conclude the Torah and immediately begin again. The conclusion of the Torah is the source of considerable debate in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15b).

אמר מר יהושע כתב ספרו ושמונה פסוקים שבתורה תניא כמאן דאמר שמונה פסוקים שבתורה יהושע כתבן דתניא (דברים לד, ה) וימת שם משה עבד ה’ אפשר משה (מת) וכתב וימת שם משה אפשר משה (מת) וכתב וימת שם משה אלא עד כאן כתב משה מכאן ואילך כתב יהושע דברי ר”י ואמרי לה ר’ נחמיה אמר לו ר”ש אפשר ס”ת חסר אות אחת וכתיב (דברים לא, כו) לקוח את ספר התורה הזה אלא עד כאן הקב”ה אומר ומשה אומר וכותב מכאן ואילך הקב”ה אומר ומשה כותב בדמע

The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as it has been taught: [It is written], So Moses the servant of the Lord died there (Deut. 34:5).  Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, Moses died there? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. Said R. Simeon to him: Can [we imagine the] scroll of the Law being short of one word, and is it not written, Take this book of the Law (Deut. 31:26)?  No; what we must say is that up to this point the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote be-dema,

Many explanations are offered as to what the word דמע means.

  • The Sefat Emet says that the final verses were written in a state of confusion.  Hashem dictated the letters without breaking them into words.  So that Moshe wrote the precise letters of the words Hashem instructed but Moshe did not know what the words were.  He did not know the meaning of that which he wrote.
  • The Ritva writes that for the entire Torah up to this point, Hashem would dictate the words and Moshe would repeat them before writing.  But upon hearing of his own death, Moshe was overcome with sadness and cried and therefore did not repeat back the words before writing them.
  • The Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, Poland) takes it one step further.  He says that the actual writing of these psukim was different.  The entire Torah was written in דיו, the halachically mandated ink.  However, the final verses were writtend בדמע, which he understands to mean tears.  Moshe literally wrote the words with his own tears instead of with ink.

I have always understood this to mean, very powerfully, that Moshe literally put a little bit of himself into the Torah.  The implication is that we too must put ourselves into the Torah by committing fully to live by it.

But today it feels like maybe Moshe’s intention was to convey a message.  We prepare to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah and to literally give of ourselves in celebration of Torah with the knowledge that Torah comes with דמע, a sense of tragedy.  We rejoice and celebrate, but we also remember all of the Jewish blood that has been spilled because of the deep commitment to Torah.  We recognize the tragedy and the sadness that accompanies our joy.

I was reminded of a story I read in Elie Wiesel’s memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea (p. 368).

In 1965 Ellie Wiesel visited the Jews in the Soviet Union.  He was there for the month of Tishrei and was able to celebrate the chagim – the holidays – with these Jews who had been forced underground.

His experience was so moving that he writes:

“If one day I appear before the celestial tribunal and am asked, ‘What did you do that was worthy of benevolence?’ I will reply, ‘I was present at the dance of Jewish history in Moscow.”

He proceeds to tell of Simchat Torah at the Great Synagogue in Moscow.  There was a huge crowd of people celebrating.

My attention was drawn to a lovely young woman who seemed to dominate the crowd.  She was shouting, “who are we?”  and they all responded, “Evri, Jews, we are Jews!”  And she called out again, “Who were we yesterday?” and again the y all responded, their faces flushed, “Evri, we were Jews, and Jews we want to be!”  It was a delirious dialogue in which all the Jews of all exiles and all times seemed to participate.  At one point I found myself next to the young woman.  I asked her what she knew of Judaism.  “Not much,” she said.  “only what my grandparents told me.”  Then why was she so determined to be Jewish?  She shrugged and did not reply.  But when I turned to leave her for another group, she caught me by the sleeve of my raincoat.  “you asked an important question,” she said, and I owe you an honest answer.  Why do I so want to remain Jewish?  Well it’s because I love to sing.”  Her answer dazzled me and I felt like embracing her.  Yes, a Jew is someone who sings.  He even sings a few steps from the Lyubianka Prison.  And he sings when he is joyful and when he is not.  A Jew is someone who turns his suffering into a song, his solitude into a chanted prayer.  I thanked the young woman.  ‘I will not forget the lesson you have just taught me.” 


Wiesel writes an interesting post-script to this story.

Years later, during extended stays in Israel in 1971 and 1972, I would go as often as possible to a remote section of Lod Airport to witness the arrival of the first Soviet Jewish immigrants.  They came in on predawn flights from Vienna.  I would watch the stirring reunion of the young and the old, the religious and the freethinkers.  They would kneel to kiss or just touch the ancestral soil.  There was weeping and laughter, hugging and silent embrancing.  Their joy was contagious.  One morning a handsome young woman came down the passageway.  She looked vaguely familiar.  Then I realized who she was, but she didn’t recognize me.  Probably mistaking me for an official of the Jewish Agency, she said something to me in Russian.  I was about to reminder her of Moscow, 1965, when suddenly a broad, lovely smile lit her face.  “Oh,” she exclaimed, “imagine how much singing I’ll do now!”  And for the second time I felt like taking her in my arms to thank her.

It is with these mixed emotions – the sense of dema, tragedy, but also with the commitment to sing (and dance) that we will now recite Yizkor.


From → Chagim

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