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September 26, 2023

Illuminating Goodness (Yom Kippur Yizkor 5784)

Andrew Kaplan Mandel

Illuminating Goodness
Rabbi Andrew Kaplan Mandel, Yom Kippur Yizkor 5784

I now need to share the story of a Yona,
who did not run away from G-d,
quite the opposite actually.

The Italian doctor Giuseppe Jona
is an example of someone
who rushed toward goodness.
In World War One, his work in military hospitals behind battle lines
led him to be recognized as a “patriot of unwavering faith.”
In Venice, Dr. Jona treated those in need without charge
and became known as the “poor people’s doctor.”
By playing a leadership role in his city’s museums and libraries,
he made sure everyone could have access to art and knowledge.

He was not particularly religious,
but this well-respected physician was asked to become president
of the Venetian Jewish community in 1940.
It was an unthinkable time,
right after the Fascists approved a manifesto on racial purity
that removed Jewish doctors from their jobs at hospitals and universities.
It was at this moment
that Dr. Jona agreed to represent his people.                 

Eighty years ago this month, September 1943,
the Nazis took over Italy and
demanded a list of the Jews of Venice.

Dr. Jona asked for a day to compile the names.
Instead, he burned all the records he could
and killed himself,
ensuring that he couldn’t be tortured
to reveal what he knew.[1]

It upsets me greatly that I didn’t know
about this remarkable person
until I visited the Venetian Ghetto this year
and encountered a plaque eleven lines long in the piazza.
Giuseppe Jona is a name we ought to know,
a man we ought to honor.
As news spread of his death originally,
the authorities refused to allow any public ceremony.
But the gondoliers whom he had treated for free
Held a procession, along the canals, silently in his memory.
He had no children,
so I will be reciting Yizkor and Kaddish for him today.

How he died
is not something we celebrate or glorify.
It’s something we mourn.

And yet how he lived
reminds me of a verse
from the book of Micah
we sometimes read this time of year:
G-d has shown us what is good.

Dr. Jona’s willingness to step up again and again for others,
not just at the end,
but throughout his life,
G-d has shown us what is good.

If you are here today remembering a loved one, you also know
what the prophet Micah was talking about:
G-d showed us what is good.

Whether that’s your parent,
your partner,
your sibling,
your child,
a loved one,
a dear fellow congregant who always greeted you during Friday night services,
in big ways,
in small ways,
you got to witness goodness.

Sometimes, it takes a bit more effort to see the good
amidst a difficult personality,
and we may even need to learn what is good from a counter-example,
but most of the time, there is at least a glimmer
that we can appreciate and treasure.

Indeed, Proverbs teaches us
that the soul of a human is a lamp of G-d.[3]
So there are little lights all over the world.

It’s such a varied collection of colors, those lights.
Maybe your loved ones illuminated

The Chassidic master, the Sefat Emet,
taught that doing a mitzvah
is like lighting a candle before God —
The more good deeds,
the more the soul shines brightly for the Divine.[4]
Perhaps that helps explain why we can still experience
such feelings of warmth from those no longer physically with us.

It is therefore so fitting how we honor luminaries in our lives.

We light a special candle on Yom Kippur,
as well as at the end of Sukkot,
at the end of Passover,
at the end of Shavuot,
and on the yahrzeit,
the anniversary of our loved one’s death.

We are not simply brightening the room,
although that is a benefit of the practice.

When you light that memorial candle that lasts all day,
you are first acknowledging and celebrating
the eternal nature of our connection.
We call the candle a ner neshama,
the light of the soul.
The Hasidic masters taught that the Hebrew word for candle, “ner,”
is an acronym for nefesh and ruach: soul and spirit.
While our loved one may not be physically with us any more,
that soul, that spirit, continues to shine brightly in our lives,
so long as we continue to summon its glow.

The custom of lighting a candle
comes from the ancient Rabbi Judah the Prince.
Before he died, he instructed his sons
to leave his lamp lit in its place after his passing.[5]

So we do so today – in every way possible.
The city of Venice did the equivalent of lighting a lamp
when they named a wing of their municipal hospital,
Jona Pavillion.
It’s where you can find the pediatric unit today.
I hope Venetian children and families
who are treated in that space
learn more about its namesake, Dr. Giuseppe Jona,
and feel inspired to carry forward
his torch of courage and caring
throughout their lives.

Perhaps we should retell the story of this Jona each year,
to prompt us all to find the good and spread it,
to remind us that we can tap into our own loved ones’ highest qualities
and ensure that they shimmer for as long as we live.

The attributes that made them feel so irreplaceable,
And made them so cherished in our lives,
are indeed what we are now called to embody.
We need not be our loved ones, nor could we.
In some cases, we would not wish their circumstances on us.
But we can consider their most important traits,
press our wick close to theirs,
and carry on their flame.

If they were truth-tellers,
how can we be a bit more honest and forthright?
If they were dreamers,
how can we show a bit more imagination and daring?
If they were hospitable,
how can we make sure we greet strangers and turn them into friends?
If they had untapped potential,
how can we make sure we are letting our own light shine?

At this moment of memory,
In this season of significance, we say
G-d has shown us what is good.
May the luminous souls of those we remember
guide our steps always.


[1] For more on Dr. Jona, see: Patriarca, Carlo et al. “Jewish anatomic pathologists in the time of Italian Racial Laws.” Pathologica vol. 114, 2 (2022): 179-184.
[2] Micah 6:8.
[3] Proverbs 20:27.
[4] Sefat Emet, Tetzaveh 3.
[5] Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 103a.

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