So, I went to see the latest Disney Pixar offering this week with my younger son. It is called ‘Coco’ and it is phenomenal. I have always been impressed with many of the films they do, because they make me think and many times relate to issues that are very close to my heart as a Jew, as a Rabbi and just as someone who want to make sure that kids and people think about issues in a deep and meaningful way.
Not to give away the whole movie, which I recommend you see, it is all about the idea of what happens to us after you die. The ‘Coco’ storyline is based on the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos, otherwise known as Day of the Dead, which is not strictly what traditional Judaism holds! However, what it did teach in a beautiful way is the concept that it is so important to remember those who have passed on. This is central Jewish tenant and the focal point of Yiskor and other memorial services we hold throughout the year.
Of course, the word Yiskor comes from the word ‘Zachor’ to remember. This week the UK has been remembering the Holocaust. Holocaust Memorial Day is tomorrow – the 72nd anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. I know the date very well as for the 50th, 60th and 70th anniversaries books were produced. The books, thank God, had a positive impact on the community. So at this time I always remember the forward which the then Chief Rabbi Sacks wrote for the project which gives a beautiful take on what ‘Zachor’ truly is. When I first read it back in 1995 it had a profound effect on me, over twenty years later, I still believe it is one of the most powerful ideas on the Shoah.
“One of the most important halachic responses to tragedy is the act of remembering, Yizkor. More than it has history, the Jewish people has memory. There is no word for history in the Tenach, and modern Hebrew had to borrow one, historiah. But the word zachor, remember, occurs no less than 169 times in the Hebrew Bible. The difference between them is this. History is someone else’s story. Memory is my story. In history, we recall what happened, so that it becomes part of us and who we are. History is the story of a past that is dead. Memory is the story of a future. We cannot bring the dead to life, but we can keep their memory alive. That is what the Jewish people always did for those who died as martyrs al kiddush Hashem (to sanctify God’s name). They never forgot them, as we must never forget the victims of the Holocaust.
But there is a specifically Jewish way of remembering. When the word yizkor is mentioned in the Torah it refers not to the past but to the present and to renewal. “V’Yizkor Elokim et Rachel”, “God remembered Rachel” and gave her a child, and thus new life. “V’Yizkor Elokim et Britav”, “God remembered His covenant” and began the process of rescuing the Israelites from Egypt. When we remember as Jews we do so for the sake of the future, so that those who died may live on in us.”
So many strands coming together this week. The idea of ‘Zachor’ in a major Pixar movie. The ‘Zachor’ of Holocaust Memorial day, the ‘Zachor’ of the Parasha as we leave Mitzraim but are eternally commanded to ‘Zecher Yitziat Mitzraim’ ‘Remember the exodus from Egypt. Finally, there is the ‘Zachor’ with Amalek at the end of the Parasha.
The link between all of them – it is not just about remembering the past, it is also about how we live our lives today.
We remember Amalek in the past to fight evil here in the present. To realise that in every generation there are those who wish to wipe us out – and we must be vigilant.
We remember the Exodus in Egypt in the past to realise our gratitude to God and to marvel at the miracle of our continued existence here in the present.
And we remember the Holocaust, to never forget the victims of the Shoah, to make sure that it never happens again but also to remember that while we cannot bring the dead back to life, if we live for what they lived for and what they died for, we can make their memory live on in us.
We remember the past, to build the future.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw