THESE WILL I REMEMBER: Black Lives, Gay Pride, & the Ten Martyrs

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we list the names of our Jewish martyrs who died for the sanctification of God’s name, al kiddush hashem. Often known as the Martyrology, the service is named after the medieval poem Eileh Ezkira, which describes the ten rabbis who were martyred by the Roman empire in the period after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The poem begins: “These [martyrs] will I remember, and I will pour out my soul. How the wicked devoured our people…

The poem is not only a chance to remember and grieve the Aseret Harugei Malchut, the ten rabbis who were murdered by the Roman government, but a history lesson. It details the rigged system, distorted history, and sham trial that led to their execution, “for during the days of Caesar, there was no remedy for the ten martyrs, doomed to death by the [Roman] government.”

As our country continues to grapple with the tragic and unnecessary murder of George Floyd, the ensuing protests, and the moral shortcomings of our national leaders, we also begin LGBTQ Pride month.

This year actually marks the 50th anniversary of annual LGBTQ+ Pride traditions. We have become accustomed to celebrating Pride with joy, incredible outfits, and rainbow-filled parades. But the reason that Pride is in June is because the first Pride march in New York City was held on June 28, 1970 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, after police raided the Stonewall Inn, one of the most popular gay bars in NYC.

As we celebrate Pride this month, we must remember that everything that has happened in the last fifty years to end legalized discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens, to promote inclusion and equality, and legalize marriage for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation, was not without conflict and sacrifice.

We didn’t get to where we are today without resistance, without a small minority of people standing up for themselves, against unjust laws and the people who enforced them. It didn’t happen without people getting arrested. It didn’t happen without voting and supporting lawmakers with a moral compass. And it didn’t happen without straight people looking themselves in the mirror, examining their privilege, and asking why it was okay to live in a society where one group of people is not given equal rights or protection under the law.

It will require the same sacrifice, activism, and honest self-evaluation to bring about justice for George Floyd and overcome the deeply ingrained hatred, systemic racism, and oppression of black and brown people in this country.

Among the Ten Martyrs was Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava who used his body to shield his students, so they could flee and teach Torah to future generations. The most well-known is Rabbi Akiva, whose crime was continuing to study and teach Torah despite the Roman decree forbidding it. For proudly living and practicing as a Jew, Rabbi Akiva was arrested. As his skin was raked with iron combs, his final words were the Shema, a statement of Jewish pride and his love for God.

We remember these martyrs every year on Yom Kippur, who died for the sanctification of God’s name, but we often forget that they were protestors too. An oppressive government denied their right to live as Jews, proudly and publicly. Rather than be ashamed and live in fear as second-class citizens, they resisted. We owe our freedom today to their sacrifice.

These will I remember: George Floyd, Ahmed Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor; Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin; and too many more black men and women; Americans and human beings, created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, who died because of hatred, systemic racism, and our collective apathy. We owe them our voice, our vote, and our sacrifice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer