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Introduction to Martyrology Service YK afternoon 2020.

09/28/2020 04:37:12 PM


Irene Stern Friedman

Nobody wants to be a martyr. 


Yet Jews have been martyred throughout history. When we pray “Av Harachamim,” every Shabbat we call on G-d to be merciful to us  for the sake of those “who laid down their lives for the sanctification of the divine name.” In Avinu Malkeinu, we plead for G-d’s mercy and forgiveness “for the sake of those who were killed for your holy name;”


We are commanded not to kill, not to commit idolatry, and not to commit adultery— not to do these things even to save our own lives. Many Jews would not convert to other religions and therefore were killed and became Martyrs. The liturgy in many Machzorim includes the medieval poem “Eleh Ezkarah,”  These are the Things I Remember.  The poem recalls in terrifying detail the martyrdom of ten of our greatest sages almost two thousand years ago during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  But some details are blurred to become universal rather than specific.  The emperor is named The Evil One,  and the empire is called  “The Wicked Kingdom.”  


In “Eleh Ezkarah” the martyrdom of our ten sages assumes a universal quality.   To the poem's anonymous author and to generations of Jews, the price paid by the ten sages to preserve the culture, wisdom, and dignity of our people reflects their own struggles.  This helped people who felt it was better to die as a Jew than live as an apostate.


Phillip Lopate, a congregant asked to give a talk like this one, said “These deaths will be seen not merely as a human tragedy but as part of a cosmic plan, which deepens the mystery—not for the last time—about why G-d should let such terrible things occur to His alleged  Chosen People.”


We will soon read  about the martyrdom of Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava, and Rabbi Hanina Ben Teradion. In each case the rabbis are portrayed in their roles as scholars teaching Torah, rather than tied to any political resistance to the Romans.


In a section about the Crusades, a pious community of Mainz is recalled. The text says “Their wisdom has been swallowed up and destroyed, as happened to the citizens of Jerusalem in their destruction.” In other words, we are witnessing something like a repeat of the destruction of the second Temple. Trouble happens and recurs. 


The martyrs of the Holocaust are closest to us. Some were pious and prayed and observed as best they could in the Concentration Camps. However, many of the six million victims did not choose to die for their faith; they were murdered simply for having been born Jewish, or half-Jewish. That doesn’t make their extinction any less horrific, but it removes the element of volition from the equation.


Even more recently Daniel Pearl, who was said to have asserted his Jewish faith, maybe even said the Shema like Rabbi Akiva, before being decapitated, died at the hands of terrorists.


At Beth Am, a synagogue in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill, for the past 15 years, congregant Rhoda Becker has customized the martyrology, compiling stories about people persecuted and murdered in modern times solely because they were Jewish. Yes, it still happens.


Maybe we have this service to remind us not to bewail being quarantined for our own safety and not to complain so much about not having a kosher butcher in town. Maybe these stories are to remind us that we were never promised a rose garden. If we lived in a rose garden, those of us with allergies would be sneezing and miserable anyhow.


Maybe we recite these stories to ask G-d to sit upon the Throne of Mercy rather than the Throne of Judgement as He judges our fates for the coming year. May G-d, and may we also, become more compassionate as we retell these stories because our people have suffered so much.  

Maybe we have this service because bad things have happened to our people through the centuries and we don’t~know~ why. Still, we accept that G-d is our King and we are his servants.


Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782