Each year as spring arrives, Jewish people memorialize. From Yizkor on Pesach, to Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, we say prayers that allow us to reflect on those whom we have lost, both in our personal lives and in our nation.
Yet, this year, as I sat in Yizkor, one line gave me pause. In some of the versions of the אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים Memorial Prayer for Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron, we say כלם קדושים, each and every person who died was holy.
But how is it that they are all holy? Certainly some of those whom we think about on these days were unkind or inconsiderate or even cruel or dishonest. Sometimes קדוש may not be the first or even the last word we use to describe them.
So why does everyone who died in these events get “bumped up” to the level of holiness? I spent some time discussing this question with our thoughtful KDS students, and we came up with a few answers that can teach us all important lessons for life.
I. Every human being is holy.
When we look at Bereishit 1:26-27, we learn that everyone is holy. Each of us is born with צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים, the image of God. This famous and foundational principle makes each person, even those who make mistakes or even those who hurt others, have some spark of holiness. When we say the memorial prayer it reminds us that while not every action is forgivable, the idea that each person is holy may allow us to be more forgiving and charitable when we think of those who have passed on.
II. Death gives us perspective.
Maybe holiness is not necessarily about the people who died, but holiness inspires those of us who remain. Rabbi Sam Shonkoff writes, “When we open ourselves to darkness—when we honestly look upon mortality, suffering and failure, in ourselves and in our world—we can elevate ourselves to higher planes.” Thinking about the concept of death leads us to think about who we are, how we live and the legacies of holiness we want to pass on. Death brings holiness as it raises us and inspires us toward good.
III. Their death linked them to Am Yisrael, to its principles and to God.
While the above reasons make sense with respect to individuals, the term כלם קדושים only appears in the collective prayer. Therefore, there must be something especially holy about dying as part of our people in these tragic circumstances.
In thinking with these lenses, one of our students so wisely said that those dead are holy because their death was a Jewish death. In other words, their death linked them to our nation and to the ethos of the Jewish people.
When we remember someone who died in the struggle for Israel or in the Holocaust, it makes them part of the Jewish story in a way that an individual death does not. Sadly, over the centuries, our people have been victimized because we stand for the principles of morality, monotheism, goodness and holiness. Sometimes, representing those ideals comes at a terrible sacrifice. The people who died in those struggles are hol,y as they make us remember that price and our connection to Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael and our principles.
So while everyone is holy on every day of the year, those who we remember on these days are unique in their tragic deaths. Yom Hazikaron, Yom HaShoah and maybe even Memorial Day all give us perspective on our commitments, on our broader priorities, our nation, our principles, our God and the legacies we want to leave behind. In this way, no matter what they did in life, in death they will always be קדושים.
Rabbi Aaron Frank is head of school at Kinneret Day School.