Rosh Hashanah I 5780
Rabbi Scott B. Roland
Congregation Shaarey Tikvah
For the past dozen years, I’ve been involved in a story. It began with my former landlady in Newton, Massachusetts sending an exterminator to the first apartment Aviva and I rented after our marriage, and the story continues to unfold today. Before I tell the story, let me tell you a bit about the story. This is a story about memory. As you may know, one of the traditional names for Rosh Hashanah is, Yom Hazikaron. Not to be confused with the modern Israeli holiday, this Yom Hazikaron has its origins in the book of Leviticus. The Torah refers to today as, “Zikhron teruah, mikra kodesh.” (Lev. 23:24) Or, “A memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation.” We have not gotten into the habit of thinking about today as a day of memory. However, by our gathering here today we are implicitly telling ourselves that our lives have meaning as long as we are not forgotten. To be sure, we talk a lot on Rosh Hashanah about the Book of Life. However, the prophet Malachi tells us that, “a book of remembrance has been written…” (Mal. 3:16) and we want to be listed in that book as well. This might be why so many of our people feel called to the synagogue on the High Holy Days. It is because deep down we know that as long as we are connected, we will not be forgotten. On Rosh Hashanah, God is not only a Divine Judge, but also a Divine record-keeper. Or, in the words of Professor David Kraemer:
“In the Bible, God is described as remembering far more often than are humans. Memory is, primarily, a divine quality, representing God’s ability to overcome the limitations of a particular time, to see the part as one segment of a far greater whole. When humans remember, therefore, we are imitating God, overcoming our own limits and, in God-like fashion, identifying with the breadth of history. Remembering is essential, because memory is divine. It is part of what makes us all images of God. Fundamentally, our memory is who we are.” (Mahzor Lev Shalem p. 160)
So, please, let me share a memory with you. Allow me share a bit with you about who I am.
Aviva and I were married on June 10, 2007. Two days later, we moved to Newton, Massachusetts. I began Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, and Aviva supported this endeavor working for an organization that specialized in campus Israel advocacy. We rented the bottom floor of a two family house. One of the great joys early on in a marriage is the fun of setting up a home together. We didn’t own this space, but we made it ours. Our landlady had service plans with all of the requisite contractors to aid us in the upkeep of our space. One of whom, was an exterminator who came seasonally. I got to know this man, named Gregory, through his visits. On his first visit, he told me what joy it brought him to enter into a home with so much yiddishkeit proudly displayed. He commented on our art and the many ritual items we had recently received as wedding presents. As it turns out, Gregory was a Lithuanian-born Jew. With each visit, he would tell me a bit more about his life, his people, and from whence they came. As we talked, Gregory wanted to know my family’s story as well.
This presented a problem. I knew relatively little about my family history. I never knew half of my grandparents. My parents showed me pictures and told me the family lore, but I couldn’t tell you exactly where we were from, when we came to the United States, or anything about the life my ancestors lived in Europe. Answering some of these questions became somewhat of an obsession. I cannot count how many hours I spent researching and building my family’s tree on various genealogy websites. I discovered the thrill of calling my family members to tell them about our ancestors and the little details I had learned about them. I reveled in the stories that they dug up from the depths of their memories about the individuals I researched. Time passed, my interest and available time for research ebbed and flowed, and the world moved forward.
In February of 2015, a man named Jack W. Logfren from Phoenix, Arizona got in touch with Debbie Wang, who then served as the President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island. Jack was a hobbyist metal detector who had spent some time that past December of 2014 searching a World War Two training camp in Arizona for buried treasure. In Jack’s own words in his e-mail to Debbie, “I unearthed a large men’s sterling silver ID bracelet, beautifully engraved, ‘With Love from Bella To Joe 2-3-43,’ and on the backside ‘J. Seltzer #32647281.’ This bracelet was lost and belowground for 72 years. My goal is to get the bracelet returned to a living family member in remembrance of Joe.” From his research, Jack discovered that J. Seltzer was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Long Island, NY. Jack sought Debbie and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island’s help in meeting his goal.
Debbie and her team got to work. They took the information given to them and pored over censuses, military records, newspaper articles, and more. Eventually, they found an existing profile for Joseph Seltzer on a genealogy website. As it turns out, I was the creator and manager of that profile. The profile was part of the online family tree I had created many years prior.
Joseph Seltzer was my great uncle. He was another family member whose story I vaguely knew. He was my maternal grandmother’s brother. Growing up, I was reintroduced to Joe annually, when my family drove out to Long Island to visit a few of the many Jewish cemeteries there. Joe was a twin brother to my Great Aunt Lily, who passed away in 2000. Though I had fond memories of my Aunt Lily, all I knew was that my Uncle Joey died in World War II.
It took five weeks from receiving an e-mail from Jack Logfren for the Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island to find me. Within a few days, my Great Uncle Joe’s bracelet was delivered from Phoenix, Arizona, to my house in New Jersey. I sent everyone involved a picture of the bracelet wrapped around a then three year-old Moriyah’s wrist.
My mother and uncle had no idea about who this Bella, the mysterious girlfriend who must have given Great Uncle Joe the bracelet, could have been. Joseph Seltzer died in April of 1945. My mother would be born two years after. What a story this turned out to be!? We assumed that the mysteries were the mysteries, the facts were the facts, and that was all we knew. I became the keeper of the bracelet, Joseph Seltzer’s Purple Heart, and a few other memorial items. It seemed like it was as happy an ending to the story as could be.
In the Book of Genesis, we read that our ancestor Jacob sent his son Joseph to find out how things were going with his brothers who were tending their flocks in Shechem. When Joseph arrives there, we read, “And a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?’ The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dotan.’” (Gen. 37:15-17) The Torah does not tell us anything about this mysterious man who happened upon Joseph wandering in the fields. He is simply known as “ish”, meaning “man.” Ramban, the 12th Century Spanish mystic and scholar, commented that, “This man was, in fact, a Divine Messenger, for this whole story was not for nothing.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the modern American author and educator, explains further, “Indeed were it not for the man who ‘happened’ to find Joseph wandering in the fields, he would have returned home. Never been sold into slavery. Never brought his family down to Egypt. The Jewish People would have never become slaves. And indeed there could have been no Jewish People at all.” (Honey from the Rock p. 74) Rabbi Kushner goes on to teach us that each of us has the ability to be Divine Messengers, without whom God’s intentions could not be realized.
For me, Jack W. Logfren, the man who found my great uncle’s bracelet, was a Divine Messenger. Debbie Wang, the President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island, was a Divine Messenger. Were it not for them, this significant profile in my family’s history would likely have been lost forever.
As it turns out, Renee Steinig, whose husband is our very own Joel Freilich’s distant cousin, turned out to be yet another Divine Messenger in my story.
On July 23rd, just over two months ago, I received an e-mail from Renee Steinig. She introduced herself as one of the board members of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island who aided in researching my Great Uncle, Joseph Seltzer. I had never heard of Renee. She was not part of the previous correspondence, rather an unnamed Divine Messenger wandering in a field destined to bump into me. As you know, this past Spring we honored Louise Freilich for her years of service to our Face to Face Holocaust Education Program and celebrated her retirement. The Cleveland Jewish News wrote a lovely article about the event that also mentioned my name. While browsing Facebook, Renee Steinig clicked on the article about her husband’s distant cousin’s wife and stumbled upon my name and picture. She had no idea that I had moved from New Jersey to Cleveland. Renee e-mailed me to tell me that the 39th Annual Conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies was being held here at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown hotel. Not only would Renee and Debbie, two of my Divine Messengers, be present, but Renee was scheduled to give a presentation at the conference entitled, “From Bella to Joe, 2-3-43: In Search of a Jewish GI’s Family.” She invited me to attend.
One week later, I entered a large conference room downtown to see my family’s history presented to this conference. I came carrying a bag containing many of my Great Uncle’s artifacts. I sat in the room with tears pouring down my face, as Renee presented more information about my Great Uncle than I could have ever hoped to know. In addition to many other sources, Renee hounded the United States Military for nearly two years to get a copy of my Great Uncle’s Deceased Personnel File, which contained a wealth of information. I cannot quite describe the feeling of seeing the letters and handwriting of my ancestors on so many civil and military documents enlarged on the screen before me. It was overwhelming. Among the bits of information I learned at this session, was that my Great Uncle had been interred first in Japan, and then disinterred, repatriated, and reburied on Long Island. As if this wasn’t enough, one of the attendees at this session was a woman who introduced herself to me as the niece of another Great Uncle on my father’s side of the family. In those moments, the world felt tiny and I felt that I was exactly where I was supposed to be within it.
All those years ago in Massachusetts, I could never have imagined something belonging to my Great Uncle being delivered to my house in New Jersey. All those years ago, I could not have dreamed of learning so much about my family history while sitting in a hotel next to Lake Erie. I’ve lived in three states over the past twelve years. While I thought I was living in them and chasing my own dreams, it turns out I was also collecting pieces of memory that I could not have imagined existed in those places. If you will recall, a few moments ago I mentioned that I learned that my Great Uncle had originally been interred in Japan. It took four years until he was able to be disinterred and reburied in the United States. Could you imagine how significant it was for my great grandparents to walk this earth for four years, unable to properly mourn their beloved son? As I put the pieces together to this story, it inspired my mother to go looking through some her late mother’s belongings. My mother rediscovered that her mother had held onto her grandfather’s, Joe Seltzer’s father’s, wallet since he passed in 1964. Tucked into the back of that wallet, my mother found something she had never noticed before. There was a picture, sent to him by the army, of his son, Joe Seltzer’s, gravestone in Japan. Even had we found this picture before the Jewish genealogy conference, it would not have made sense to my family. We needed all of these Divine Messengers to fill in the pieces of the puzzle. My great grandfather carried around a picture that reminded him of his deceased son for nearly twenty years. My heart sinks just to think about it. It took twelve years, three states, as well as strangers and communities that have now become friends, so that this memory would not be lost.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote the following beautiful reflection in which he compared each of our lifetimes to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:
Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.
Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.
But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
Jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that
All the pieces were there.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.
And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.
(Honey from the Rock p. 69)
It turns out that Gregory the exterminator had encouraged me to open the box and start putting my puzzle pieces together. Jack, the hobbyist metal detector had a piece of my puzzle. The board of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island had a piece to my puzzle. This congregation, the Freilich family, the City of Cleveland, had a piece to my puzzle. These scattered pieces are the keys to memory. These invisible lines of connection, uniting people and place, are what allow for each of us to enjoy eternal life.
So here we sit on “Zikhron teruah, mikra kodesh,” a sacred day of memory upon which we sound the shofar. As I reflect upon this journey of rediscovering memories once lost, I wonder how we might better connect to memory this year. I wonder how we might commit ourselves to reaching out, listening, connecting, and remembering. Or, as the founder of Hasidism, The Baal Shem Tov, is known to have said, “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” We are gathered here with the hope that we will be redeemed this High Holy Day season. Memory is the key to this process.
A story is told about the Hasidic Master, Rabbi Shmelke of Sasov. In the hour before he died, Rabbi Shmelke of Sasov had visions of his father, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov and his teacher, Rabbi Mikhal, the maggid of Zlotchov, standing beside him. Upon seeing the images of these great men, he began to sing an acrostic hymn that was popular in the circles in which Rabbi Shmelke spent his life and remains a part of our liturgy today. The rebbe sang:
Haderet v’haemunah l’chai olamim. Excellence and faithfulness belong to The One who lives forever.
Habinah v’habracha l’chai olamim. Understanding and blessing belong to The One who lives forever.
Hagavah v’hag’dulah l’chai olamim. Grandeur and greatness belong to The One who lives forever.
Then Rabbi Shmelke of Sasov got to the fourth verse in the hymn, which reads, “Hadeah v’hadibur l’chai olamim. Cognition and expression belong to The One who lives forever.” He stopped singing and said: “When one approaches the end of their life, when the power of expression and the power of cognition are being taken from them, they shall give these two, cognition and expression, to The One who lives forever.” (Tales of the Hasidim II:95)
The Hasidic master teaches us here that a certain time comes for each of us when we will be unable to tell our own stories. Today, on this Yom Hazikaron, this Day of Remembering, we are reminded that we may fall back on God’s memory. As we will soon read in the Zikhronot, Remembrance, section of the musaf Amidah, “Atah zokher ma’aseh olam. You remember the deeds of the world and You are mindful of Your creatures since the beginning of time.” Rosh Hashanah teaches us that God remembers and finds a pathway for our stories to be told. May this day remind us that we each carry with us odd shaped pieces of each other’s stories, longing to be whole.
I’ll conclude with a prayer composed by the late Rabbi Morris Adler:
We thank You, O God of life and love,
For the resurrecting gift of memory
Which endows Your children, fashioned in Your image,
With the God-like sovereign power
To give immortality through love.
Praised be You, O God,
Who enables Your children to remember.
And let us say, “AMEN!”