Eighth Day of Pesach Yizkor Sermon 2012

Eighth Day of Pesach

Yizkor Sermon


1. Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

2. The beginning of Pesach is all about the Exodus from Egypt. We read about the plagues, the final dinner, the death of the first born and the redemption that came so quickly that our ancestors did not even have time to bake bread for their journey. It is this journey from slavery to freedom that takes up the first two days of Pesach. Here at the end of Pesach, however, the focus of our holiday is on the miracle of the Reed Sea.

3. The Torah tells us that the splitting of the Reed Sea and the escape of our ancestors from the Egyptian army took place on the last day of Pesach. This one moment in history is, without question, the greatest miracle of all time. The people of Israel never forgot how God saved them from certain death at the hands of the enemy and then destroyed that enemy without Israel having to lift a finger. The Torah tells us that the people saw the dead bodies of the Egyptians washing ashore and then they realized the great miracle they had just witnessed and they believed at that moment in God and in God’s servant, Moses. And so the people, led perhaps by Miriam and the women, sang a song of Thanks and Praise for the great deliverance they had encountered. Whatever doubts they may have had about God and Moses, those doubts were washed away with the Egyptian army.

4. After all the singing and dancing was done, Moses then leads the people away from the sea onward in their journey to Mt. Sinai. Only the text here has a strange anomaly. Verse 22 uses the verb, “Vayasa” a word that has the connotation that the people left the sea reluctantly. Why were they so attached to this place? Why didn’t they want to get as far away from Egypt as they could? Why didn’t they set their face to the future and to whatever lies ahead?

5. The Midrash comes to tell us that the Egyptian soldiers decorated their horses and chariots with gold, silver and precious jewels. The Israelites would gather on the shore of the sea every morning to see what precious stones might have washed ashore overnight. The Midrash claims that the reason the people of Israel were reluctant to leave was because they wanted to see if the sea would yield up more of the riches that had sunk to the bottom.

6. My colleague Rabbi Neil Kurshan noted that this is the way many of us feel. It does not matter if it is a moment of happiness or sadness. We always want to stay where we are and hold on to the feelings of the moment. A child will want to hold on to a familiar doll or blanket to fight feelings of insecurity. A teenager will hold on to tickets or a corsage that reminds her of a very special date with a friend. We spend hundreds of dollars on a wedding album and video so we will remember every moment of this most happy day in our lives. We keep locks of hair from our children’s first haircut and their first school pictures to remember these important moments in their lives. And yes, even after the death of a loved one, we hold on to something that reminds us of the one we have lost. In each of these cases we cling to the memory, the moment and the object and we do not allow ourselves to move on in life.

7. You see, it may not have been greed that kept our ancestors on the shore of the sea. Perhaps they were only looking for a memento of that moment in their lives. Just like we collect the jewelry, artwork or other tangible reminders of important moments in our life, so too the Israelites were looking for a way to keep the memory of that moment alive by acquiring something that would remind them of this extraordinary event.

8. The movie, Top Gun is about the lives of military fighter pilots. The hero’s best friend and co-pilot is killed in a training accident. The pilot blames himself for the death even though a military tribunal clears him of all blame. It was only an accident, one that could not have been prevented no matter what the pilot might have done. Still, the pilot holds on to the dog tags of his friend and he can no longer trust himself in a combat situation. Where once he was the most skilled pilot on the aircraft carrier, now he is timid and unable to engage the enemy in combat. It is only when the other pilots are in extreme danger, does he finally get past his guilt and anger and saves those who were relying on his skills. Only then can he throw away the dog tags of his friend and let the memory rest in peace.

9. We are all here today because we are like the ancient Israelites. We hold on to the tokens of the lives of those we have lost. We hang on so that the memory will stay with us forever. We do not want to forget a single moment in the lives of those we once loved. It could be a picture, a piece of jewelry, a family heirloom, a tool our father once used. A bowl that once decorated our mother’s table. We look on the object and we are transported back to the moments when their presence filled our lives and our love for them was full and alive.

10. The problem is that time does march on. The memories in our heads are of a loved one as they were five, ten or twenty years ago. If we are 80 years old today, our parents would be over 110. We have forgotten the illnesses, the accidents, the ravages of time that those we once loved suffered. Maybe they were ready to let go of life, maybe not. But when they slipped away from us, we froze their memory in a happier place. All too often, we refuse to travel on from that place and face our own future.

11. Moses had to gently move Israel from the shore of the sea into the desert to face new dangers and new miracles. Yizkor, the service we are about to begin, calls to us in much the same way. It is true, our loved one once sat at our Seder table, once joined with us in chanting the Haggada and helping us to steal the afikoman. The challenge to us, as we recite the memorial prayers, is not to hang on to a token of their lives, but to translate their lives into some meaningful action in our own world. That our lives should testify to the kind of life they once lived. In this way their memory is not frozen in a moment, but alive in every action we perform.

12. When I give charity in memory of my father, many people understand that the way he lived his life taught his children to be charitable. When I make a contribution in his memory, I am keeping the meaning of his life alive. When I dedicate my writing to the memory of my father, I keep alive in my heart that which he shared with me from his. My father insisted that he arrive for every Shabbat service before it began, and I still arrive early to shul as a living testimony of what I learned at his side.

13. Yizkor is not a ritual that helps us cling to old memories. It is a chance to make that memory come alive again in our lives. The point of this service is not just to cry at what we have lost, but to also rejoice over what we still have, what we still carry in our hearts. When I think of my father and my brother as I recite the prayers of Yizkor, I think not of how they once said these words, but I think about how much pride and satisfaction they would get, knowing that I have never forgotten the lessons they taught me.

14. We should not use this time wishing we could go back in time to happier days. We can no more go back in time as the Israelites could go back to the shore of the sea. We should use this time of Yizkor to rededicate our lives to the values they stood for. To live for ourselves the lessons we learned from them. We should use this moment of remembrance to remember how they have shaped our lives and how we are the real memorial to who they were and what they accomplished in life. This hour is not about what we have lost, but about all that we are because of the memories we carry inside. It is about what we can do today to make our lives a living memorial to theirs.

15. Do we only have a plaque on the wall in their memory, or have we dedicated a siddur or bible in their memory that others can use in their hour of prayer or praise? Will we donate to our synagogue like they once donated to theirs? Will we reach out to the soup kitchen or food pantry as a way of creating a living legacy of their live? Will we sponsor some learning, a page of Torah, or sponsor some kind of a living tribute to their memory because they once considered such things important? Do we have enough pride in who we are and all we have become that we can make a Yizkor contribution to Temple Emeth as our way of keeping our memories alive? You have the envelope in your hand. Think about what you can do in honor those we remember today. $150 will buy six prayer books or two bibles that will carry their names. Take the envelopes home and mail them back to Temple Emeth after the holiday.

16. We don’t have to go back to remember those we have lost. We can carry their memories into the future. We can make, in their names, a better, kinder and more just world. And that is the greatest legacy we can receive from their memories and then we can turn and give that legacy to our own children.

May the memories we recall this day inspire us to deepen the meaning of our own lives and then let us turn and leave these values as an inheritance for those who will someday remember us.

May we always look to the future and not live in the past as we say …


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