June 14, 2024
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June 14, 2024
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Moving Forward While Looking Back

It’s been a rough 1½ years for all of us. So much loss, so much pain and so much devastation. With everything that’s happening (a pandemic, a number of horrific tragedies in Israel, a war in Gaza, and the growth of antisemitism worldwide), it’s not hard to question “where do we go from here?” I’m reminded of an Abie Rotenberg song:

Father, please tell me, what does God intend?

Will this long bitter exile soon come to an end?

Or must we continue to suffer and grieve,

Father, please tell me what should I believe?

What we are living through is not something that should soon be forgotten, and it is our responsibility, privilege, to make sure of it. This sentiment is most definitely not the first time in Jewish history that this feeling has been shared.

We Jews have had a long and troubled history, which was wrought with pain and suffering. However, we have been able to transform that pain and suffering into lineage and heritage. Our laws and customs have been able to sustain changes, without loss, and light, in the face of darkness. These laws and customs have endured through Judaism’s most painful times—because of the individuals’ impact on the community. Kohanim are only aware of their status because it has been passed down to them through their lineage that has survived. Family minhagim have survived and are taught to the next generation to ensure survival.

A common custom from the birthplace of our great-grandparents to the laws in the Torah requiring unity-community is instilled in all that we do. This pandemic, however, took that away from us. This pandemic required many of us to stay at home, alone. No visits, no schmoozing, no shul. We know that what the בתי מקדש did before on a macro level (i.e., עליה לרגל and הקהל), our shuls do on a micro level. The shul is not only the place to pray, but it is the place to pray together. Our rabbis tell us that a בית כנסת is a מקדש מעט, imbued with the קדושה of our connection to Hashem.

One prayer in particular, recited almost every Shabbos, is our reminder of why we are still able to get together and pray. This prayer has eluded my understanding for many years, and has only now proven (to me at least) why it was added to the Shabbos liturgy so long after the siddur was arranged.

אב הרחמים is, by all accounts, a prayer that is out of place. We have laws that dictate that personal requests should not be made on Shabbos because Shabbos is for everyone. And we have laws that state that Shabbos brings with it a certain level of happiness and joy that should not be interrupted with downtrodden prayers. And yet, this prayer, that begs Hashem for vengeance for all those Jews who perished during the Crusades (and updated for all those who martyred themselves for the sake of Hashem), is recited on almost every Shabbos. Why?

The origin of this beautifully written prayer comes from the communities of the Rhineland, Germany, right after the First Crusade. Thousands of Jews were murdered, as the soldiers marched toward the Holy Land. These martyrs were remembered in books called Memorbuch and an anonymous writer submitted the Av Harachamim prayer to be said with the names. While the Memorbuch have been lost, the prayer has survived.

The words used were carefully chosen, says Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz (the late chief rabbi of the British Empire), in the first English translated siddur, printed in 1948. Rabbi Hertz says that the author’s words invoke the Jewish community as a whole to pray on their behalf. The author describes the attributes of the martyrs as “lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death were not divided.” The author’s community members died for the sake of Heaven, and should therefore be “remembered for good with the other righteous of the world.” Rabbi Hertz says that the author’s belief that there are righteous people in the world, Jewish or not, shows hope for humanity. The recital of this prayer is not generated to instill vindictiveness or hatred, but rather heroic endurance for those still in the synagogue able to say the prayer. And, therefore, the author leaves it with Hashem to “render retribution for the blood of His servants.” For it is not up to man to determine Divine retribution.

It is no shock, therefore, that this prayer was used to remember other tragedies that have occurred to the Jews over the years—from the Jews of Poland in 1648 and 1649, to the Kishinev pogroms in 1903, even Jewish deaths during the Black Plague, as Jews were thought to have spread the disease.

With this one prayer, as a community, Jewish tragedies can be enumerated and yet bonded together to remember all that we have lost. Rabbi Hertz says that this prayer is even more powerful when remembering all of the souls lost during the Holocaust.

And yet, the author instills hope for a future. Through all of these Jewish tragedies, our customs have remained. Through all of the pain and suffering, we have survived. This past year and a half has taught us independence and self-reliance. However, it is now that the healing process begins. It is now that the אב הרחמים would have been written. It is now that we can come together as united communities to remember what has been lost. To remember their personalities, and to remember them for the good.

With the vaccines given, the mask mandate lifted, and an adjustment to the “new normal,” we must reunite inside (or outside) our shuls to benefit from our communal relationships. Doing so will help us, and future generations, realize that in the end “על כן ירים ראש”—tired from the pain and suffering, the survivors (warriors) can refresh ourselves and lift up our heads, to move forward. Our Jewish existence will never fade, because it is our duty to remember the past and teach the future.

And so the father’s response to the son, at the end of the song:

Listen, my child, the future will bring,

A day when the world knows who’s King of all kings.

Today or tomorrow, I don’t need to know:

אחכה לו בכל יום שיבוא (I will wait for Him, on whichever day He comes).


Michael Goldsmith is a 35 year old husband and father of 2. He lives in Bergenfield and is a COVID-19 long hauler who spends his “spare” time researching and sharing the areas of Judaism that pique his interest.

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