Shemini Atzeret Yizkor
Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
- Hag Sameach
- Yizkor always comes at the end of major Jewish Holidays. If we pause to think about this, it is a rather surprising time for Yizkor. When we think of holidays we usually think of celebrations, festive meals, impressive synagogue services, and the scope of Jewish history. With all the joy of the holiday we might think that it would be out of place to dwell on those who have died. After all, the pain in our hearts never really goes away. We learn to live with the ache in our hearts and we try to move on. Why should we pause our holiday festivities to remember the dead?
- But Judaism looks at our holidays differently. All through the year we can busy ourselves with our work, our family, a host of distractions, clubs and organizations so we don’t have to dwell on the memories of those we have lost. But the hardest times of the year, when the memories can no longer be suppressed, is on holidays, when we gather together and there is an empty chair at the table. The family table now has one less setting. The friends gathering have one less companion to share the joy. The normal course of conversation will eventually include memories of holiday celebrations when our loved ones were still alive.
- Yizkor gives us a time to pay attention to these memories. They cannot be the elephant in the room, filling the space but nobody is allowed to talk about it. There is no reason to tell someone “Don’t think about who you have lost, it will dampen the mood of the holiday” because it will not help to deny the feelings. Jewish ritual has us confront our memories, we gather in synagogue and we recite the words of Yizkor to help sharpen what we desire to remember.
- Judaism gives us this time, at the end of the holiday so we don’t have to struggle to forget; we have this time aside to remember. The dead may not be able to be a part of our holiday, but their memory and the lessons they taught us are a priceless possession and these memories rightly belong in this small part of our holiday service we call Yizkor.
- Psychologists tell us that repressing the memories does not make them go away, they always come back, sometimes when we least expect it and sometimes at inappropriate times. We all need a year or more, they tell us, to fully heal from the pain of loss. Long before psychology, however, Judaism understood that death is not an evil that has to be avoided as if it were a plague. It is a natural part of life and it is not to be feared. It just takes time to heal. No matter how calm or traumatic a death may be, Judaism teaches us that that we have duties to those who have died and we have duties to ourselves as we journey through the “valley of the shadow of death”. We cut short these rituals at our own peril, cutting us off from the source of our healing.
- So many people think Shiva is a bother because it is so long; a whole week of sitting and mourning. At a time when we want to be far away from people, Judaism teaches us that we need to be with people. We need to hear the stories of our loved one told by others and they need to hear our stories too. It is not a time to go to work, or run around doing errands all over town. Shiva teaches us that we need to stop our life and first let the healing in. The healing that comes when our friends and family gather to support us in our hour of pain. Everyone I know who has sat Shiva for the whole seven days, is always glad that they made the decision to sit. There is no reason to rush. There is no reason to be somewhere else. We sometimes feel we want to hurry and remove all the memories of this painful death right away but Judaism has us wait, until our hearts have begun to heal before we begin to go through the possessions of the deceased. Jewish ritual gives us all the time we need to mourn our loss and slowly ease back into the routines of daily life. Shiva ends with a walk outside, symbolizing our re-entering the everyday world.
- Sheloshim, the 30 day period that follows the funeral, is directed to our emotional state. We may be ready to get back into routines, but some aspects of life still feel strange when we have recently suffered a loss. Parties and music just feel wrong when we are mourners. How can we say Kaddish three times a day and then turn around and attend a concert or dance at a wedding? Sheloshim gives us extra time to stand apart until we are ready to rejoin the rest of society.
- For an entire year, we are given the responsibility to pray on behalf of a parent or loved one. We still have to face a year’s worth of celebrations; birthdays, anniversaries, favorite holidays, long weekends, all of these will give us reason to cry anew and Kaddish helps us travel a minefield of memories that sometimes can trip us at surprising moments. Finding a way to get to a minyan and say kaddish is an action we can do to honor the one who has died. Maybe it is impossible to say Kaddish every day, but in our quest to say Kaddish daily, we are not remembering the dead so much as we are remembering why they made such a difference in our lives. The Kaddish is not about death, it is about the glory of God, the God who sends us healing, the God who comforts us for our loss and the God who gives us the strength to go on.
- What is surprising, however, in this comforting passage that we call Jewish mourning, is that there is no ritual for the end of the year. We say Kaddish for our 11 months, we observe the first Yahrtzeit but it will be just like every other Yahrtzeit; there is nothing to set apart the first one. One day we are still saying Kaddish, the next it is all over. Should there be a ritual for the end of Kaddish? Should there be a special ceremony for the first Yahrtzeit? We don’t have one now but perhaps we can create one that will bring us the comfort we need at that crossroad from mourner to one who’s sorrow has healed.
- On the one hand, maybe there can be no such “end of Kaddish” ritual. We never really fully heal from our loss. Sometimes, we will find ourselves crying when we see an object that reminds us suddenly of the one who is gone. For the rest of our lives we will think of who we have lost and we may even catch ourselves wishing we could talk to them, get some more advice, share another secret with them just one more time. Maybe there can be no ritual because the pain never really ends, we just learn to live with our loss weighing heavily in our hearts.
- And yet we understand that this is a moment that somehow needs to be marked by Jewish ritual. An important part of our life has come to an end, the active mourning of the death of a loved one, and a new part is just beginning, normal life infused with important memories. It seems as if we need to mark this transition. From this time on we will only have Yahrtzeit and Yizkor to get us through the year.
- Maybe this is the time to start to write a personal memoir of the deceased. Maybe this is the time to begin to record the memories of our parents so that their grandchildren and great grandchildren will know something about the generation that is gone. It may be that a baby born soon after the death will be given the name of the one who has died. What a wonderful legacy our memories can be to the child who one day will grow up and come to know important lessons from the life of their namesake. Showing the child who carries the name pictures and lessons from the life that has gone, can inspire the children to carry on the lessons learned into the next generation.
- If our parents left for us documents about their lives and the meaning they found in their activities, I am sure that we will have read this ethical will soon after the death. But at the end of the year, maybe it is time to read it again. If they did not leave such a document, maybe it is time to write it on their behalf, to record the lessons they taught us when they were alive, a document we can then read to the next generation and maybe even read to ourselves on important dates in the future; for example, when a grandchild marries, or on the Yahrtzeit or each year on their birthday. The written document becomes a legacy of their life that we can share as we wish with others.
- Maybe we need to recite a blessing when Shiva is over. Maybe the shehechiyanu should be recited when we light the Yahrtzeit candle for the very first Yahrtzeit; we’ve made it through a difficult year and are ready to begin a new phase in our life; or perhaps we should again intone “Baruch Dayan Emet” and affirm, a year later that God is a righteous judge. Another possibility is perhaps we should say a blessing over a new article of clothing, symbolic of the torn garment or ribbon that marked the beginning of our mourning. I know a man who had a jacket that he tore when his mother died. When the mourning was over, he sat down and sewed up the tear. The jacket was repaired but the scar was still visible, a reminder of the days of sorrow that had ended. Rabbi Naomi Levy noted that death makes us feel finite, but we are comforted when we realize we are part of something infinite. A person may die, but their memory lives on as long as there are those who remember.
- So as we rise for Yizkor, let us contemplate what might make up for us, a ritual to mark that day when the tear in our heart was healed and we went on, scarred but still standing, emerging from the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” and back into the sunshine at the top of a new mountain. Maybe it is not too late, we can still write a memoir of our parents or loved ones, as a testament for our own children and grandchildren. Passing on the lessons we learned, is our connection to eternity. Yizkor is here to remind us of memories that have shaped our lives. Let us use those memories and weave them permanently into the tapestry of our family’s memory.
May we always be blessed with good memories and may we do all we can to keep these memories alive as we say …
Amen, and Hag Sameach
Let us rise at this time, for our Yizkor Service