By Rabbi David
Gut yontif on this Yom Kippur of loving connection, courage, vulnerability and forgiveness. These “love” themes of our High Holy Day journey all flow into this poignant day when Jewish wisdom urges that we can change our lives in just a day if we’ll take that inner loving leap.
Modern mysticism scholar Gershom Scholem called days like today “plastic” times, “crucial [moments] when it is possible to act” with greatest effect. “If you move then, something happens,” he said, for then circumstances or times become favorable. Things long “stuck” can get “unstuck”: a precious window of opportunity opens.
Yom Kippur is such a moment in Jewish spiritual time, much as this season is such a moment in national and global time. Now is our plastic hour. What will we do with it? Let us not look back and lament, in poet Mary Oliver’s words: “What else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me,” she asked: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver echoes Yom Kippur’s call to look back on our lives, and on others’ lives.
Memory is a time warp. We remember yesterday, from today, as we live into the future. “Life is lived forward,” said philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “and understood backward.” We can’t change the past, but our memory shapes the meaning we make of the past – and our choices and actions going forward. Who we are is, in part, how we remember.
So it matters that we remember and how we remember, especially now in this plastic hour when our future – the future – vitally depends on lessons embedded in memory. How will we remember our year, our choices, our actions, what we have yet to repent, forgive and release? How will we remember souls at Yizkor – ones whose qualities we want to keep alive through us, and some for whom memory is complex? How will we remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery? How will we remember 205,000 Americans and now fully one million worldwide dead from covid-19? How will we harness memory today to shape our choices and actions tomorrow? What will we do with our “one wild and precious life”?
It’s a lot to remember – but this holy Yom Kippur day, this plastic hour, comes to re-member, literally re-mind. Our re-ligion (re-ligare, re-connect) re-minds us to re-connect by re-membering. We remember back in time to inspire us to live forward better as people and better as a people. Memory isn’t just about thought or feeling: memory asks action.
Love has been our High Holy Day theme for just this reason. We’ve invoked love‘s connective impulse to flow and grow; courage to embolden introspection and then action; vulnerability to trust the unknown; and power to give and receive forgiveness. Today we invoke love to infuse memory with the duty to act, to shape a future worthy of our best selves.
During our shul’s 2019 service mission to Cuba, we met Davíd Romano, who leads La Sinagoga Am Shalom in Santa Clara. Davíd is a Cuban-Jewish leprechaun – jovial, outgoing, mischievous gleam in the eye, the kind of guy you just know can get into John Lewis’ kind of “good trouble,” and probably often did. I liked him instantly.
We felt the pride that Davíd and the community felt for their achievements amidst adversity. It was hard not to, as they proudly showed us around their synagogue, built by their own hands – the sanctuary, the community rooms, the offices, the kitchen, the outside eating area with an incredible 30-foot mural of Jerusalem’s holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
We celebrated with them a community bat mitzvah and a baby naming. The joy in the room was electric and totally contagious. Hebrew and Spanish and broken English, hand gestures, smiles, song and dancing – the love in the room was palpable and transformational.
After hosting us at his shul, Davíd took us to the Jewish cemetery. Santa Clara is four hours east of Havana, so it felt surprising to find a Jewish cemetery – but there it was. And just inside was a Holocaust memorial, complete with train tracks from Nazi transports to Auschwitz, and street paving stones from the Warsaw Ghetto. The inscription on the memorial reads:
לזכר אחינו ואחיותינו שנהרגו בשואה
“To remember our brothers and sisters murdered in the Holocaust.”
Standing at the memorial, Davíd described the effort to bring it to life – the funds, paving stones, train tracks and shipping. The thousands of dollars funding this project might have done millions worth of good for Cuban families. “But nothing is more important than memory,” Davíd said, with love and pain. “Memory is for the future.” Memory today, of fascism and antisemitism yesterday, can help face and fight it tomorrow.
As Davíd spoke, I noticed a building 200 feet to the side. I went and asked the attendant if I could look inside. He showed me into a room for tahara, ritually cleansing a body before burial. I must’ve looked emotional to see Cubans honoring this loving and sacred practice – so the attendant said to me: Lo usábamos el més pasado cuando murió la mamá de Davíd (“We used it last month, when Davíd’s mother died”).
I was stunned: Davíd was mourning his mom. This Cuban-Jewish leprechaun was talking passionately about the Holocaust 80 years ago, raising consciousness today to fight bigotry tomorrow, while his own mother was buried right there barely one month earlier. I was so moved that I began to cry. The attendant – maybe 70, thin, dressed barely a cut above rags – reached into his pocket and handed me a coin. It was an Israeli 10 agurot coin – worth 2.8¢, one-tenth of a shekel. He said in Spanish: “I’ve never been to Israel, but I carry this coin and I remember who I am. Please take this coin home for me.”
I’ve carried his coin with me ever since. Someday, I’ll take it home. It’s right that we remember how we all carry with us a bit of each other.
Remembrance inspired Davíd to keep alive the lessons of fascism and antisemitism, to remind Cubans, and visitors from around the world, that the future is aleinu (on us). Remembering his mom inspired Davíd to channel passion and grief into propelling legacy through him, his shul, and now all of us. A dirt poor man who never visited Israel, and never will, still remembered Israel as his beloved home and his yearning for a future in which something of his – some part of himself – could go home.
Memory is among our most powerful catalysts. It can’t change the past, but it can defy odds and shape futures. Judaism continues today, over 3,200 years after Sinai, because of memory – not as a holy relic kept in museums or history books, but as a loving impulse of evolution and transformation. It’s why we’re here today. It’s how Jewish memory shapes us, inspires us and empowers us. We remember who we really are.
Memory isn’t easy. Some memories hurt. We may clutch memory in ways that keep us stuck, though forgiveness means giving up the hope of a better past. Maybe our losses are fresh: only time will help us remember most healthfully. Some wounds run deep: healing is the path of a lifetime. And some memories we’d rather outright forget.
Meanwhile, this tumultuous year 2020 confronts us yet again with rising fascism and antisemitism, with fear that history can repeat. If so, then one reason is that collective memory is failing. Two weeks ago, the first-ever 50-state survey of attitudes about the Holocaust revealed that a majority of 10,000 adults polled saw Holocaust denialism on social media this year; in New York, it was 67%. Nearly 50% of adults aged 18-45 couldn’t name even one concentration camp; in New York, it was 58%. Nearly 60% nationally didn’t know what Auschwitz was. Fully 20% of New Yorkers said that Jews caused the Holocaust. Last month, a Florida high school principal was reinstated after being suspended for telling parents that good people are on all sides of the Holocaust “issue.” In U.S. elections, a majority of eligible voters don’t vote, 100 years after the 19th Amendment banned voting discrimination on the basis of sex, and 55 years after the Voting Rights Act banned it on the basis of race.
We proclaim “Never Again,” but collectively we are forgetting. The dark underbelly of ostensibly enlightened society – the liberal social ethic that validates everyone’s emotions, beliefs and views – undermines our learning from history and the objectivity of fact. But there’s no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternate reality.” No healthy civic society, and no healthy inner landscape much less a loving one, can come from cherrypicking our own thoughts, feelings and facts – never mind our own history. That’s just an echo chamber posing as reality and connection.
That’s how Holocaust denial happens, how toxic politics happen, and how we forget what’s most important. The late great New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wisely said that we’re all entitled to emotions and opinions, but nobody gets to clutch their own facts. Cherrypicking can’t fully connect us, isn’t courageous, isn’t vulnerable to trust, can’t really forgive what can be forgiven, and can’t act wisely. That’s how history repeats, and how problematic behaviors and patterns fester.
“Never Again” means neither amnesia nor armor – nor does love. “Never Again,” and real love that heals, compel us to remember the whole – not just what’s self-serving or easy – and then rightly live whole memory forward into a tikkun (repair). That’s real memory, powered by connective, courageous and vulnerable love. That’s the kind of memory that helps us live the legacy of our loved ones’ most worthy qualities. That’s the kind of memory that can inspire bold action to shift behaviors, and change trends for any future worthy of us and future generations.
Soon we will begin our Yizkor service: יזכור אלהים את נשמת אהובתי / “May God re-member the soul of my beloved” – not part of the soul but the whole soul, the whole of every soul, the whole of our collective soul, the whole of humanity destined someday to go home. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Especially on this holy Yom Kippur that we dedicate to love in all holy ways, may memory open us, touch us, and inspire us to live forward rightly and with full hearts. May this plastic moment open today’s precious window of opportunity to change our lives – and re-dedicate ourselves to making the most of this year, this life and this world that urgently need all our loving action.
May love‘s forward-living memory empower us, in the words of Rabbi Shira Milgrom, to “transform our pain into empathy, [and] fear into courage.” As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, so may our love and resolve now “fill our world with healing and blessing.”