Rabbi’s Corner

Where have all the young men gone?

Rabbi Israel Becker

Usually when you write an article, you hope that there will be numerous readers and that your message will be well received, however, this article is being written for the benefit of those who I am certain will not read it because they are no longer on this earth.

I remember clearly as a child watching hundreds of people come to the synagogue to say Yizkor (the memorial prayer) for their departed parents and family members. Many a synagogue would open a special ballroom or even rent a facility to accommodate the Yizkor-goers. Furthermore, daily synagogue services in the mornings and the evenings were packed with people saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. Today this does not happen. Across the board and across the country the large throngs no longer appear.

One could actually ask the question, “Where have all the young men gone? Where have all the young girls gone?” Why so few Yizkor-sayers? Have people stopped dying? Is there any reason to suggest that the death rate among Jews has decreased?

When we are called to the Torah, the expression aliyah, meaning elevation, is used. Similarly, we have a tradition to say, “May the neshama (soul) have an aliyah.” Hashem in His ultimate kindness gave us the means to connect to those we knew and loved and have not forgotten. G-d has endowed us with the capability to assist and elevate their souls and position in the world to come through our actions.

The Ramban, Nachmanides, presents Terach, the father of Abraham, as a Biblical illustration of this concept. Although Terach lived his life as an idol worshipper he was allowed entry into Gan Eden (the afterlife) due to the merit of his extraordinary son. Yizkor, Kaddish, prayers, charity, mitzvahs on behalf of our loved ones bring them direct benefit and pleasure. But, where have the young men gone! Where have the young girls gone! Where are the crowds, why are they not coming!

The answer seems quite clear. I believe what is missing is the “soul” of the matter.

In order to be committed to elevating the neshama of a loved one, one needs to first believe that the loved one has a neshama. One needs to take Bereishis (Genesis 2:7) to heart. “G-d formed man from the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils the soul of life.” One needs to believe that our sojourn on earth is a challenge and opportunity to elevate our souls and that after death the soul ascends to a world of spiritual grandeur. It seems, sadly, that too many Jews are most surprised when they learn that this concept is core to Judaism.

The Purim masks many will wear next week actually symbolize our external and internal selves, our body and soul.

The Megilla (9:27) tells us, “The Jews confirmed and undertook upon themselves.” This means that the original commitment that was made in the days of Moses was reconfirmed for all time due to our love for G-d for bringing about the great Miracle of Purim.

Without that recommitment, we would never have had a Purim to celebrate. Purim is the right time to recommit ourselves to the belief in the presence of the amazing G-dly soul within us. This for our ancestors was basic Judaism 101 and even successfully transmitted to the “Yizkor-sayers,” the children of newly arrived immigrants, even as they were busy pursuing the American dream.