Why I light two memorial candles today
Today is voting day in the USA. An important privilege to change and improve the course of life for so many.
But today is also a loaded day for the Jewish people – and also -for my family. I want to share with you how it all, somehow, fits into one narrative about the responsibility and the ability to honor legacies and change our world – for good.
On November 4, 1995 – the 11th of Hesvhan – I was standing on a roof high above Jerusalem and heard a call, a summons, a command to tell a story – the oldest story that demanded a new end.
That night I began the journey that would lead me to become a storyteller, and eventually, to take on the mantle of the rabbinate, in the name of hope, with the goal of radical change, of a better story.
It was the terrible night that claimed the life of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin – a fallen fighter in the war for peace.
The Jerusalem streets were rivers of flames. Memorial candles were lit in every street corner, altars rose in Zion Square, crammed with flowers and photos, handwritten notes with words like ‘sorry’ and ‘shalom.’ The shock was felt like smoke, mythic, unreal, larger than life, completely new and yet terribly familiar. Was that what sacrifices smelled like?
On my dining table, a memorial candle was still, barely, burning. I had lit it 25 hours ago, in honor of the memory of my Grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Lau. On this date, back in 1942, he was gassed to death in Treblinka, along with one of his sons, a boy of 10 named Shmuel, and many of his congregation. Eye witnesses survived to tell of how the rabbi led the congregation to their deaths with a Torah scroll in his arms, chanting the Kaddish. My father and his brother survived to continue their father’s rabbinic dynasty and build the state of Israel.
That year, I had chosen, for the first time, and for a few different reasons, to light my own memorial candle – take on my own way of honoring my past, and commit to a way all my own of continuing the legacy and picking up the thread.
And now the light of that one candle was reflected in the thousands down below – gloom and violence and dread flickering and fragile, like a horror story that’s come back to haunt us, desperate for a twist, another turn.
It reminded me of yet another horror story. I was studying in a Yeshiva that year, focusing on the Biblical Binding of Yitzchak. I was making up my own spins on what could have happened – Midrashic musings about the ways in which the boy may have chosen to refuse his binding father, run away from this testing cruel God, away from knife and mount and legacy, living a new vision for himself, and for us all.
But Now Yitzchak lay dead. Bound and killed by someone who had heard a call, like Abraham, to kill in the name of some sacred voice: A sacrifice for the sake of the Promised Land.
Was Rabin’s assassination the sequel to the Binding of Yitzchak?
Only this time no angelic intervention and no ram. No happy end. Just a crumpled song for peace, stained by Yitzchak’s blood.
Somehow all of it made sense together: Rabin and my Grandfather and Genesis: Stories of violence in the name of higher callings, disregard for human life in the service of this or other ism that defies all that is sacred.
I understood that night that not only was this modern murder a continuous commentary on Genesis but that this story – Torah – is real in ways that I never imagined – a saga unfinished and not a sealed scroll; a living myth and mystery-in-making, ever-evolving, just like us.
And just like us – in constant need of healing, change,dramatic measures that will turn the tides from the patterns of pain and destruction to a new direction that embraces love and life.
Rabin’s killer quoted scriptures and claimed God’s calling – and that is his right and educated commentary, even if evil, illegal and wrong. But if one voice can claim the ownership of the sacred story with such fatal conclusions – then so can other voices that favor change, pursue peace, celebrate life in all its messy flavors.
And that’s the call I heard that night, the summons -to take on the stories, to continue where my ancestors had labored to make sense of our sacred legacies in life and death – to fight for justice, dignity, equality for all.
I got that night how stories matter.
If our stories are indeed alive, these reservoirs of values, engines of our faith and source of action in this world, then it’s the stories that we tell that require the healing – which ones we choose to share, why and how we choose to pass them on.
There are those, like Rabin’s killer, who choose to tell our stories favoring literal readings that stick to the vocabularies of either/or – fear based, parochial and patriarchal. There are so many for whom the stories are unknown, closed books, obscure and daunting.
But to change the way we live our tales with values that reflect our love of life more people need to know that our stories are alive and real and waiting for brave new tellings.
How else will we change the story of this fight between the children of Abraham? How else will we bring peace?
So here we are, 19 years later.
The peace that Rabin fought for is still so far away. So many have died in the name of sacred stories.
But many more of us are attuned to the power of these stories and our role in telling them in ways that heal, resonate and renovate and pay attention to the many colors and voices and options that celebrate the full and messy hopeful diversity of life.
The saga continues.
I heard the call, became a storyteller, and now have taken on the role or rabbi. My ancestral legacy continued, the flame lit on.
And there is so much left for so many of us to do in the service of the sacred – of a better, safer world.
Today I pause to light two candles, to the memories of all whose legacies in life and death have given me a role, a voice, an inspiration, a story to continue telling – with changes, for good.
I light a candle for the memory of my grandfather, and his son, and wife, and congregation with the grief and promise that I’ll do what I can do never forget and to always fight for less hatred and more love in the world. And I light a second one, for the memory of Yitzchak Rabin, along with all of Abraham’s children who had fallen on the battlefield for peace – with the relentless hope for courage, progress, dignity and joy to all.
The story is ours to change, for good.
That’s where voting comes in.
And also, this morning, just as I finish writing this, good news came in – my niece Hedva, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Lau’s great grand daughter, just gave birth to a healthy baby boy – in Brooklyn! The chain continues. Mazal tov.
Let the memories be blessings.
May these flames of hope grow stronger and the light live on.