Yizkor, Pesach 5777: The Enduring Melody of our Choices
Rabbi Dan Dorsch
Some of you may have heard me quote the words of an old folk melody composed by Yaakov Cohen from this bimah before, and it won’t be the last time. “HaYamim Cholfim Shana Overet, aval HaManginah LeOlam Nisheret.” The days change and the years pass, but a melody remains forever.
This morning, I want to begin by talking about someone for whom this idea was less metaphorical, than literal. Because while I suspect that no one here has likely heard of Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker, if I sang for you--with my apologies to the composer, either this--Eishet Chayil Mi Yimtzah, or Mizmor LeDavid (Seudah Shlishit), you might know exactly who he was. And that’s because Ben Zion Shenker, who passed away at the end in November was the composer of over 500 Jewish sacred melodies. In fact his New York Times obituary called him the foremost composer and singer among the Modzitzer Chasidim, or perhaps, of our lifetimes. As a young man, Shenker rescued many Hasidic melodies from Europe that would have been lost. He sat transcribing the Modzitzer Rebbe, who barely escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland. Yet far from being insular, Rabbi Shenker’s love of sacred music carried him all over the entire Jewish world. I first learned those melodies at Camp Ramah, and today, his original continue to be repeated and covered, by the likes of Yitzchak Perlman, Israel’s philharmonic, and his more than 90 great grandchildren. Talk about “nachas.”
Why did I begin this morning by speaking about Rabbi Shenker’s life in connection with melody? I believe it’s because today, as we reflect on our lives and the lives of our loved ones at Yizkor, we will also spend time reflecting on what it means to live a life of enduring melody.
You know sometimes people will spend their entire lives collecting things trying to achieve a kind of immortality. It’s like we expect that thousands of years from now people are going to remember our biographies with the precise details of our lives, the car we drove, or even what house we lived in. But as we gain more perspective, and the death of our loved ones has certainly given us perspective, what we realize that what endures more than our names are our melodies, our actions, our ripple effects, the sound waves that we make. Even if we or our loved ones did not ourselves compose music, as human beings we recognize that there is yet another a kind of music, and a rhythm, that gives life it shape. It comes when we do a kindness, or even when we do something unkind toward someone else. It comes when we make choices that affect not only ourselves, but future generations. We tend to think that our actions and choices take place in a freeze frame...when in reality, we all know that it is this intangible ripple that endures forever.
Not long ago, I went to visit a cemetery where I visited my great great grandparents. (Shout out to Montefiore cemetery). They came to this country after the depression of WWI Europe and opened up a tailoring plant on Washington Square. Can you imagine what that property would be worth today if they hadn’t sold it? I’m not sure I would be here. Yet today, alI that I can tell you is that all I know about my great grandparents I know through my grandparents. And soon, all that my children will know about them only comes through me. Yet what they did in their lives, the melodies they wrote, the courageous choices they made, continue to resonate and affect my very existence. When they fled persecution in Europe and came to America they composed a new melody. And when they valued and treasured and modeled their Judaism for their children, who then passed it to their children: that was for me, their greatest symphony, that one that I get to continue to write for my children. Our tradition teaches mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. That one mitzvah causes another. Because when we watch our ancestor or friend make a choice, we learn from and imitate it. And it is these kinds of melodies, more than the tangibles or buildings or homes that are as powerful as Shenker’s music.
Today, Rabbi Ben Sion Shenker’s melodies are so popular that they are in used in synagogues all over the world. You might even say that they have become even greater than the composer himself. In a few generations, no one may remember the name Rabbi Ben Sion Shenker his name, just as no one may remember the name of Rabbi Daniel Dorsch. But the melodies that we write, through our kindnesses, and our choices will endure forever.
And so as we begin the Yizkor service this Pesach, and as the days and seasons pass, let each of us reflect for just a moment not only memories, but on melodies. Let us reflect on perhaps one ripple or two that one of our loved ones made on their time on this earth. Let us recall how their choices continue to affect our choices. And as we remember their choices for a blessing, let us pray that the choices we make and continue to make may someday our choices are also be remembered for a blessing. Amen.