Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Eleh Ezkerah
“These things I remember as I pour out my heart,” begins the liturgy of Eleh Ezkera, a section of the Yom Kippur service that speaks of Jewish martyrs. While many communities refer to the traditional “Ten Martyrs” poem that invokes the destruction in ancient Jerusalem, a BJ tradition has been to hear the narratives of survivors of the Shoah and of their descendants.
One interpretation of the classical text of Eleh Ezkera is that the death of the ten rabbinic martyrs is connected to the selling of Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37), and it suggests that their martyrdom may atone for the sin of antagonism between brothers. Can death ever serve as an atonement? Why might this theology be soothing for some and problematic for others?
While Yizkor services mark the loss of close family members and give spiritual space for individuals and families to remember their loved ones, Eleh Ezkera is a time for acknowledging communal pain, tragedy, and loss. How might our communal mourning be different from our individual mourning?
How has Jewish collective trauma marked your identity as a Jewish person? What pain might this liturgy allow us to process and spiritually metabolize?
As Rabbi Ellen Lippmann wrote regarding the Eleh Ezkera liturgy, “Why haven’t Americans, Jews or not, responded in full voice to the outrageous abuses and torture by our government? Is it just that it is all so far away, and we can barely manage to get through our days as it is? Or is it that we are ambivalent?” How could our memory of collective suffering encourage us to acknowledge and work to prevent modern-day torture and human rights abuses?
One interpretation of our white garb on Yom Kippur is that we are rehearsing our eventual demise in the midst of great spiritual intensity. How might we reconcile our liturgy of martyrology with the Jewish injunction to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19)?
What is your personal connection to the Shoah? How might you honor that memory and connection in the midst of your Yom Kippur practice?
A midrash retells our classical martyrology and includes a scene where the angels protest God about the death of the rabbis. What in our world are you longing to protest God about?
Are there stories in your family of resiliency in the face of destruction, or maintaining Jewish identity and practice under pressure? How can you celebrate these stories of courage together as a family? (Sharing special memories about family members, keeping certain traditions, and more.)
Are there Shoah survivors or victims in your family? What can you do this Yom Kippur to honor their memory?