The Supreme Sacrifice: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5771

From my Erev Yom Kippur sermon last Friday:

And as I think about it, perhaps this is why we read a Martyrology on Yom Kippur. As we remember our martyrs, we search our own souls and ask ourselves honestly: what have we done in the past year to prove ourselves worthy of these profound sacrifices? What have we done to affirm that these people did not die in vain? Did we indeed honor their memories by transforming loss into justice and hope for our world?

Click below to read the entire sermon:

A JRC member recently asked why we never do the Martyrology service on Yom Kippur. I wrote back to the congregant – and I’ll confess to you now: I’ve never been a huge fan of this particular liturgy.

The Martyrology, known as “Eleh Ezkarah” in Hebrew, is traditionally recited during the Yom Kippur afternoon service. The traditional version is a liturgical poem that graphically describes the execution of ten rabbis, among whom were the famous Rabbis Akiba, Ishmael and Shimon ben Gamliel. All of them were sentenced to death for their support of Bar Kochba’s failed revolt against Rome in the year 132.

The Martyrology highlights the spiritual sacrifice of the rabbis with the often unbearably graphic details of their executions. We read how Rabbi Akiba managed to proclaim the Shema even as his flesh was being gouged out with iron combs; Rabbi Henania ben Teradion was wrapped in a Torah scroll together with damp wool to ensure he would die a slow and painful death by burning. As the flames consumed him, he cried out to his students that he could see the letters of Torah ascending up to heaven.

Perhaps the most disturbing description comes with the execution of Rabbi Ishmael. As Ishmael wept over the dismembered head of Rabbi ben Gamliel, the emperor Hadrian’s daughter admired his beauty and asked that his life be spared. The emperor then ordered that the Ishmael’s skin be flayed from his face and preserved for posterity.

I think by now you can understand my aversion to the traditional Martyrology. But beyond the graphic imagery, I think I’m even more troubled by the theological reason for it’s inclusion in the Yom Kippur service: namely, the concept of “blood atonement.” According to this theology, we invoke the lives of our martyrs in the hopes that their deaths may atone for our misdeeds. Since the destruction of the Temple, we can no longer offer animal sacrifice. But even if we aren’t worthy of God’s mercy, we pray that we may be forgiven on account of their sacrifice. According to this view, you might say, the Ten Rabbis “died for our sins.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. Many scholars agree that the original source for this liturgy, Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, comes from the same period and literary tradition as early Christian martyrological literature. But it’s not the Christian associations per se that trouble me – it’s the implications of the theology itself. It’s the suggestion that bloodshed atones. And in particular, it’s the idea that I can somehow be let off the hook because of the tragic death of another person.

Of course it cannot be denied that the literal act of animal sacrifice was the way Israelites originally atoned for their sins. In tomorrow’s Torah portion, we will read how Aaron the High Priest sprinkles the blood of a goat and the blood of an ox over the altar, thus making atonement for all the sins of Israel. It is indeed a powerful image and metaphor, but surely we’ve long given up on the idea that God literally requires blood as a path to forgiveness. And I’m sure that the notion that God might require the bloodshed of human martyrs as an atonement offering would strike many of us as borderline sacrilegious.

In more recent years, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist High Holiday liturgies have added other Jewish litanies of persecution to the Martyrology, including the horrors of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust itself. But to my mind, contemporary updating only deepens the essential problem. Do we really want to mythologize these tragic events and understand them as sacred offerings? Do we actually mean to view the death of the six million as a kind of sacrifice to God for our sins? Again, I believe most of us would find such a theology to be profoundly offensive.

So while I do believe we most certainly need to remember and honor our collective Jewish losses, I’ll admit that I’ve long struggled with the concept of martyrdom. And in particular, I’ve struggled to understand how a Martyrology might fit into our Day of Atonement – a day we devote to teshuvah, to repentance, to spiritually repair for the New Year ahead.

Since I received that member’s e-mail, however, I’ve been thinking more about this issue. In many ways, I think, martyrdom it’s is a fairly loaded term. After all, every religious tradition and every community has its martyrs – the figures who are exalted for having made the ultimate sacrifice. But I’m fascinated that the term is often used today colloquially in something of a pejorative context. We’ll use the term “martyr” for someone who relishes playing the role of sufferer, usually as a form of emotional manipulation.

Even so, and even if many of us today have difficulty with the traditional religious conception of martyrdom, I wonder now if American Jews might be able to reconstruct this idea for a post-modern age. And further: I’m wondering if we might possibly find a way to create a Martyrology service that truly be appropriate and meaningful to us on this Day of Atonement.

You might be surprised to learn that martyrdom is actually promoted in certain cases by traditional Jewish law. According to halacha, it is considered preferable to sacrifice one’s life rather than publicly transgress the prohibitions against idolatry, sexual immorality or murder. For centuries, this form of martyrdom has been considered the ultimate way to honor the traditional Jewish concept of Kiddush Hashem (or “the sanctification of God’s name.”)

And clearly there are no shortage of Jewish martyrs throughout Jewish history. There are the men and women of Masada who took their own lives rather than be captured and enslaved by the Romans. In the Second Book of Maccabees we read of Hannah and her sons, who were tortured and killed by Antiochus Epiphanes when they refused to publicly eat pork. During the Inquisition, the Jews of Spain and Portugal were executed or exiled if they refused to renounce their Jewish faith.

Of course when Jews contemplate martyrdom today we cannot avoid those who perished during the Holocaust. But indeed, viewing the victims of the Shoah as martyrs presents a myriad of new complications for us. In the first place, the six million are not mythic martyrs from the distant past – they are very real individuals. They are, quite literally, our fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. Unlike the Maccabees or the Jews of the Inquisition, many of us are still personally grieving for these individuals. It isn’t such a simple matter for us to understand their deaths in the context of martyrdom and many of us wouldn’t even begin to try.

Moreover, the Holocaust marks the first time in history that Jews weren’t only killed for religious reasons – for their beliefs or their practices. They were killed because of who they were. Their martyrdom (if that is what we choose to call it) was completely and utterly involuntary. Unlike the deaths of Rabbi Akiba or Hannah, these deaths were not a result of personal action or conscience – or even of their own volition. Those who perished in the Shoah had no intention and certainly no desire to become martyrs.

The Holocaust was certainly one of the most notorious mass murders in modern history. But was it a mass martyrdom? Should we even refer to it in such a way? In thinking through these questions, I recently found turned to a teaching that some might consider to be an unlikely source – namely, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I’m sure all of you are familiar with an infamous event that transpired in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. It was the occasion of an involuntary martyrdom – one that has since become very important in American history . This was the day that a bomb planted by members of the KKK went off in 16th St. Baptist Church, killing four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley – and injuring 22 others.

And at the funeral for three of the girls, King gave a famous address that has since been known as “Eulogy for the Martyred Children.” Near the close of his remarks, he said:

So they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy scripture says, “A little child shall lead them.” The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the while citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past in to the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event many cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.

Then King turned to the families of the little girls and said this:

At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and painful moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of a river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of the summers and the piercing chill of its winters. But through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able to lift you from fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.

Amongst the many religious texts I’ve read on the meaning of martyrdom, I personally find King’s words to be among the most meaningful and profound. I am particularly moved by his hope, by his realism, but most of all, by his refusal to surrender to the despair that these little girls died for nothing. As daunting as it was, he was determined to find a spark of spiritual meaning in this tragic loss.

Yes, he used the imagery of blood as redemptive – but he did so in a way that affirmed goodness and justice in the face of an evil, unjust act. As horribly tragic as their deaths were, King could not but affirm that their deaths would, as he put it, “serve as a redemptive force” that would eventually bring new light during those very dark times.

However: while King did believe that the loss of these innocents would ultimately bring freedom that much closer, he did not for a second suggest that God somehow required their blood to bring justice to the world. Ever the consummate pastor, King turned to the families of the little girls. Even after affirming their deaths would contribute to the cause of justice, he acknowledged the injustice of their families’ pain. After all, while these four girls had become martyrs to the world, to their loved ones they were daughter, sisters, granddaughters and friends. They were, very simply, Denise, Addie Mae, Carole, and Cynthia.

So yes, King said, “life can be hard, as hard as crucible steel.” Life can be tragic; life can be filled sorrow that feels sometimes feels utterly unbearable. But where is God in the midst of this families’ sorrow? God certainly didn’t receive their deaths as a kind of “sacrificial offering.” Rather, King said, “God walks with us.” God is the Spirit of compassion and strength that lifts us from “fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope,” that transforms “dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.”

As I read these words, I can think of no better way to remember all whom we consider to be martyrs. We begin by affirming meaning in the face of tragedy and loss. We affirm justice even amidst the pain of the injustice. We mourn our loss, and finally, we do what we must to bring some kind of meaning to our loss – to ensure that these deaths were not in vain.

And as I think about it, perhaps this is why we read a Martyrology on Yom Kippur. As we remember our martyrs, we search our own souls and ask ourselves honestly: what have we done in the past year to prove ourselves worthy of these profound sacrifices? What have we done to affirm that these people did not die in vain? Did we indeed honor their memories by transforming loss into justice and hope for our world?

To put it more specifically: as we recall our Jewish ancestors who died for practicing their faith, we must ask: have we done what we can to ensure that Judaism – this exquisite spiritual tradition of ours – will be passed on to future generations? When we tell of those who died in pursuit of political freedom, we must admit openly: how we have failed to ensure that these freedoms are extended to all in our nation and our world? And as we mourn the lives of six million lost, we must ask ourselves honestly: how can it be that more than sixty years after the Shoah, sixty years after this most radical form of inhumanity, sixty years of saying “Never Again,” we still continue to remain silent in the face of genocide?

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve begun to envision a new kind of Martyrology service: one that honors our dead but also one that challenges and awakens us to action. And since we are not only Jews, but also Americans and citizens of the world, I believe it would be critical to include non-Jewish martyrs as well: American figures such as, yes, the four young girls from Birmingham or, sadly, Dr. Martin Luther King himself. Or courageous figures from around the world, people such as Stephen Biko, whose death became a rallying cry against South African apartheid. Such a service might also provide us with the opportunity to learn more about international human rights heroes in our own day and consider how we might honor their memories.

Clearly, the individuals we choose to include would reflect our own values – and I’d welcome the opportunity to explore together what a JRC Martyrology service might eventually look like. In the meantime, we have added a section to tomorrow afternoon’s Yizkor service that will give us the opportunity to honor the memory of the six million. Among other things, it includes these powerful words of the great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, who survived World World II in Vilna and died only this past January at the age of 96:

Survivors! Inherit, with your happiness,

The tears of each of us, flickering in that vise

Remember: Inhale our dying.

Never forget: Be martyrs to life.

I invite you now to think for yourselves: Who are the courageous individuals whose sacrifices inspire you be “martyrs to life?” How will you honor their memory? What will you do in the coming year to bring meaning to their sacrifice?

When we honor our martyrs on Yom Kippur we stand up against hopelessness and fear. Yes, it is natural to be fearful in a world that sometimes feels as hard as crucible steel. But as long as there are survivors who will bear witness to the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, it seems to me, we do our part to keep their dreams of peace and justice alive.

I’d like to close now with a quote from a another contemporary martyr: El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980 for courageously promoting freedom and justice in his country. In the coming year and the years beyond, may we all prove ourselves worthy of his words:

Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.

And to that let us all say,


2 thoughts on “The Supreme Sacrifice: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5771

  1. Ruth Rosen

    Brant, Thank you for these words. Here is a quote from your
    Senator Richard Durbin:

    “We shouldn’t be so numb to the violence. We shouldn’t be so deaf to the cries of all the families that beg us to do something to avoid another victim. We shouldn’t be beaten down by the gun lobby.”

    This is from the 20th Anniversary of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project. Go to

  2. Reuven

    While I am not particularly religious today, I grew up in a very religious environment. It might be interesting to hear how some of these concepts were explained to us then.

    First of all, the talmud goes into great detail about the fact that “The death of the righteous atones.” This was a long-standing principle in Judaism, and to refer to it a Christian is anachronistic – if anything, Christianity adapted a Jewish principle.

    Why does the death of the righteous atone? Why do they get to be a stand in for me or you? Well the answer is they don’t, not really. In Judaism the very existence of righteous people in this world was considered a great benefit to the world, and their death something that impacted everyone. The commentator Rashi, talking about Jacob’s leaving the town of Beer Sheva says “that when a righteous person leaves a place, he leaves an impression. It means that he leaves a void. So long as a righteous person is in the town, he is the glory of the town, and the splendor of the town, and the light of the town. But when he leaves, all of that goes with him.” The same holds true when he dies.

    So in essence, their death atones in the same way that punishment and affliction was supposed to atone (and the atoning value of affliction is at the heart of what yom kippur was). Their deaths made a nasty impact on the world and that impact continues through the ages. Their deaths was a punishment for everyone else, not for them.

    Now…. this might not be a completely satisfactory explanation, but this is what we were taught as kids and how many people view this.


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