I heard a particularly inspiring story recently. It is the story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and was sent to serve in Europe in the 106th Infantry Division. During the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, Sgt. Edmonds was taken by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, along with over 1,200 other American soldiers. As it turns out, Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer in the group, and was therefore the leader of the prisoners. The Battle of the Bulge, for those who do not know, was the Nazis’ last major offensive, and from the American perspective was the largest single battle in WWII, yielding 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 deaths over a period of about 6 weeks.
Late in January of 1945, when the Nazis saw that they were losing the battle, the prison camp commandant instructed Sgt. Edmonds to order all the Jewish American soldiers to appear outside their barracks the following morning. The next day, all 1,275 American prisoners of war in the camp assembled outside the barracks.
The commandant was furious, and held a gun to Sgt. Edmonds’ head, demanding that he identify the Jews. Now, Jewish soldiers had been warned that if they were taken prisoner, they would likely be separated from the non-Jews and sent to death camps or slave labor camps, so they should destroy their dog tags if captured. Edmonds, knowing that if he identified the Jews, he would be signing the death warrant of up to 300 American Jews, responded by saying, “We are all Jews here.”
The Nazi commandant pushed him again to reveal the Jews, claiming that they could not all be Jewish. But Sgt. Edmonds knew that the Geneva Convention required that he give only name, rank, and serial number; religion was not a piece of information he would volunteer. He responded by saying, “If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.”
Roddie Edmonds was a humble man; he never told his family this story, but made a brief mention of it in his own diary. After he died in 1985, his son, a Baptist minister, discovered the entry, and managed to get in touch with a few of the Jewish survivors of the POW camp to uncover the whole story.
In 2015, Edmonds was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem as the fifth American, and only American serviceperson to be dubbed one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the title bestowed on non-Jews who rose above the Nazi horror, putting their lives at risk to save members of our tribe.
If you imagine yourself in Edmonds’ place for a moment, you have to wonder: Could I have been so brave? Could I have done the same thing? Would I have dared the Nazis to kill me to save a few of my comrades?
In that moment, he must have contemplated his own death. He must have thought, “I am ready to die to protect my Jewish fellow soldiers, who have put their own lives on the line for our nation. I will take this Nazi bullet if I have to, in order to save their lives and my own dignity.”
And of course, Sgt. Edmonds made the honorable choice.
How many of us have thought about our own death? I certainly have. Not in a bad way, mind you, but more from the practical perspective. If, God forbid, I were to be taken from this world tomorrow, how would life change for my family? What would my funeral look like? What would be my legacy on this Earth? Will somebody post something on my Facebook profile explaining that I will no longer be responding to direct messages? Will Judy find a new home for all of my suits?
Will my children remember me by reciting Yizkor prayers on the second day of Shavu’ot?
There is a Bhutanese folk saying that in order to be a happy person, you must contemplate your own death five times a day.
In order to enjoy the present, we have to remember that life is a finite gift. We only have so many days on this Earth, and it is up to us to use them as best we can. We only have so many opportunities to connect with others, to share our love with family and friends, to do good works in our community and for the world.
We only have so many opportunities to save a life.
We have to remember that we are going to die, so that we can appreciate the precious few years we have been given.
In a few minutes, we will recite one of the key passages of the Yizkor service, Psalm 16:8-9 (p. 331 in Lev Shalem):
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי ה’ לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד כִּ֥י מִֽ֝ימִינִ֗י בַּל־אֶמּֽוֹט׃ לָכֵ֤ן ׀ שָׂמַ֣ח לִ֭בִּי וַיָּ֣גֶל כְּבוֹדִ֑י אַף־בְּ֝שָׂרִ֗י יִשְׁכֹּ֥ן לָבֶֽטַח׃
God is always before me, at my right hand lest I fall.
Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.
We tend to think of Yizkor, more properly called Hazkarat Neshamot, remembering the souls, as recollection of those who have passed. But it is just as much a recollection of our own souls; a reminder to those of us who are alive that we can be happy now despite our mortality. Just like the Bhutanese, who derive their daily happiness from contemplating death, we, the Jews, understand that life is meant to be enjoyed, and that joy is heightened by its natural limit.
The quote from Psalms compels us to consider our mortality in a healthy way. And as we remember our parents and grandparents, spouses and siblings and children and aunts and uncles and cousins and dear friends whom we have lost, we have to remember the ways in which they used their time not only to give us life, but to make our lives better, to make our world better.
There has been, of late, a lot of public death and mourning in the news; three major mass shootings in three weeks, and a great deal of soul-searching and of course posturing about how to respond.
If I had one wish for our society, it would be that we value our precious few moments of our collective life so much that we do everything in our power to prevent others from taking it away. I will know that God truly is at my right hand if, when we as a nation stumble, we remember that our first task on this Earth is to do no harm, and indeed to stop others from harming if we can.
And perhaps if we remember God’s presence, if we can center the imperative of, “Va-anaḥnu kore’im umishtaḥavim umodim,” that we bow, bend our knees in solidarity, and give thanks before the King of Kings, or Ruler of Rulers, and we recall our essential duty to conserve the life we have been graciously loaned from on high, we might as a society be able to pull ourselves out of the depths.
As we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, of recalling those souls, I call on you now to reflect not only on those who gave you life, on those whom we remember, but also to take this opportunity to reflect on our own mortality, to remember our holy imperatives given to us by God, to remember the heroism of those who have saved lives, and of course to consider how we might save even more.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavu’ot, 6/6/2022.)