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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

TODAY IS YOM HA-SHOAH (HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY)

Today Jewish communities throughout the world mark Yom Ha-Shoah / Holocaust Memorial Day. While there are other observances – notably the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January – there is something about today that has the feeling of a family in mourning.


At memorial services today, and in some places on this coming Shabbat, Jewish communities will invoke ancient rituals to mark the modern catastrophe brought upon our people. One of these ancient practices is to recite a prayer called “El Malei Rachamim / God Who Is Filled With Mercy.” If you have ever attended a conventional Jewish funeral, this prayer is usually the last one chanted before the funeral continues at graveside. It’s also part of traditional Yizkor / Remembrance services on Yom Kippur and other major holidays.


The Holocaust versions of the prayer borrow heavily from the individual versions:


God who is filled with mercy, who dwells in the heavens, provide perfect rest beneath the divine wings—amongst the holy and the pure who shine as brightly as the rays of the sky—to the souls of the six million Jews, victims of the European Holocaust, who were murdered, slaughtered, burnt and exterminated for the Sanctification of the Divine Name, by the German Nazi assassins and those who helped. May the Master of Mercy protect [the victims] forever beneath the Divine Wings and may their souls be bound up with the bond of the living. The Lord is their heritage. May they rest in peace in the Garden of Eden (i.e., Paradise) as they await the end of days. And let us say: Amen.


Of course, as a Humanistic rabbi I never invoke this traditional prayer at funerals I conduct. It’s so obviously incompatible with our beliefs that I only mention it here because of the way my reaction to this version exceeds its irreconcilability with my humanistic sensibilities. I actually find it to be repulsive.


The Israeli poet and secular humanist Yehudah Amichai—whose writings are employed in many of our Shabbat and holiday services—expressed a similar loathing to it.


His own version begins with this:


God who is filled with mercy

If God were not so full of mercy

There would be mercy in the world, not just in him ….


Having grown up hearing (and, yes, chanting) this prayer at each year’s Holocaust memorial service, I took it upon myself to compose a version of our own; one with humanistic sensibilities that truly honors the victims.


In the memory of those who were murdered, I offer it here:


We pray no more to “One who is full of mercy.”

There is no shelter for those whom we have lost

Under divine wings.

Mercy is for the living.


For those who were slaughtered there is only memory.


May we preserve this precious ember.

May it never depart the psyche of our people

Or of humanity.


For there is no heavenly Master of Mercy

On whom we can prevail to shelter them forever.

They are gone; they do not rest in peace.

They shall not return.


All that remain are lessons that we take from the conflagration that robbed them of the possibility of sweet and pleasant lives.


May these lessons be bound up with us forever,

Teaching us to become masters of mercy such that we honor

their memory with this oath:


“Never Again!”


Not for our people.      


Nor any other.


Please join us this Friday night as we welcome Shabbat and remember those lost in the Shoah. After our brief service we will screen the documentary short film One Survivor Remembers, Gerda Weissmann Klein’s account of surviving the Holocaust. It was produced in 1995 by HBO and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and received an Academy Award. 


You may remember the moving acceptance speech delivered by Mrs. Klein, of blessed memory. I urge you to watch it at this link.

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