Passover Yizkor Sermon - April 11, 2015
Isaac Leib Peretz was one of the the great Yiddish authors of the 20th century. His writing focused on Jewish life in the shtetl in a way that not only celebrated that life but also critiqued it. Peretz wanted the traditional Jews to rise above their lot in life and strive for greatness and he wanted the secular Jews to see the significance of traditional Jewish values. Peretz's goal then was to inspire Jews to see the value that all Jews bring to the Jewish community.
Peretz died on the 3rd intermediate day of Passover - April 3, 1915 - and in his memory I bring this short story of his titled "The Golem". The legend is famous but we'll see how Peretz adds his own touch to the tale.
Great men were once capable of great miracles.
When the ghetto of Prague was being attacked, and they were about to rape the women, roast the children, and slaughter the rest; when it seemed that the end had finally come, the great Rabbi Loeb put aside his Gemarrah, went into the street, stopped before a heap of clay in front of the teacher's house, and molded a clay image. He blew into the nose of the golem - and it began to stir; then he whispered the Name [of God] into its ear, and our golem left the ghetto. The rabbi returned to the House of Prayer, and the golem fell upon our enemies, threshing them as with flails. Men fell on all sides.
Prague was filled with corpses. It lasted, so they say, through Wednesday and Thursday. Now it is already Friday, the clock strikes twelve, and the golem is still busy at his work.
"Rabbi", cries the head of the ghetto, "the golem is slaughtering all of Prague! There will not be a gentile left to light the Sabbath fires or take down the Sabbath lamps."
Once again the rabbi left his study. He went to the altar and began singing the psalm "A song of the Sabbath" [psalm 92]
The golem ceased its slaughter. It returned to the ghetto, entered the House of Prayer, and waited before the rabbi. And again the rabbi whispered into its ear. The eyes of the golem closed, the soul that had dwelt in it flew out, and it was once more a golem of clay.
To this day the golem lies hidden in the attic of the Prague synagogue, covered with cobwebs that extend from wall to wall. No living creature may look at it, particularly women in pregnancy. No one may touch the cobwebs, for whoever touched them dies. Even the oldest people no longer remember the golem, though the wise man Zvi, the grandson of the great Rabbi Loeb, ponders the problem: may such a golem be included in a congregation of worshipers or not?
The golem, you see, has not been forgotten. It is still here! But the Name by which it could be called to life in a day of need, the Name has disappeared. And the cobwebs grow and grow, and no one may touch them.
What are we to do?
(Translated by Irving Howe)
This story highlights Peretz's literary style. On the one hand he ridicules the traditional Jew who only cares about the sabbath lights and whether there will be a minyan, and on the other hand he says that the traditional Jew has the power to do great things.
The message is further clear for us. Where do we find our values, in what do we find meaning? Are our parents' values or Jewish values hidden in the attic under cobwebs? Or do we have access to them? Can we bring Jewish values to life and add new meaning to them?
Though Peretz has been gone 100 years, his writing still resonates today. May his memory always be a blessing.