Guest post: Rabbi Pam Wax on the beauty of Yizkor, the memorial service

For many years, I taught Introduction to Judaism classes in New York City. These were generally 20 or 30 week classes that covered the gamut of Jewish holidays, theology, history, and lifecycle events. Undoubtedly, I found that the classes on Shabbat and on Death were the topics that I most loved to teach and that I believed had the most potential to intrigue, excite and enlighten non-Jews and religiously uneducated Jews about the uniqueness of Judaism.

It is obvious that Shabbat has made a comeback in the last few years, even in the secular world. The idea of “unplugging” for one day a week is conversation du jour in our increasingly electronic world, and the recognition of a day of rest from the rat-race has been advocated and championed beyond religious communities. In a world that once- upon-a-time had no “days off,” Judaism created one. Thank God!

Likewise, we should thank God for the beautiful traditions we have for honoring our beloved dead. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “if death has no meaning, then life is absurd.” I believe that we can keep life meaningful by revisiting our dead on the sacred occasions that our tradition has outlined for us to come together as community to do so. Yizkor, the memorial service, (meaning “Remember!” in a command form) is a foundational Jewish ritual that connects us to our ancestors, to community, and to our Jewish faith. Four times a year as the Jewish calendar revolves from season to season, we are given the opportunity to reflect upon those who gave us life, both physically and spiritually. And each holiday imparts a slightly different nuance to that commemoration.

At Yom Kippur, we stand naked before God. Yizkor at that holiday may seem the most powerful both because of the awesome nature of the day as well as because of the numbers of people who surround us, sharing in that sense of universal loss, longing and grief for those who no longer live and breathe among us. As it is the day when we ask forgiveness from God, it is appropriate that this yizkor is the day we also ask forgiveness of our beloved dead or offer it to them. An appropriate meditation for this Yom Kippur yizkor meditation would be to consider what we need to forgive our beloved dead for, or what we need to ask forgiveness for.

Only days later, however, we have another yizkor service, this time on Shemini Atzeret, at the conclusion of the Sukkot holiday. Sukkot is z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy and gratitude for the blessings in our life, so I have the sense that our communing with our dead on this holiday is about sharing joy, letting them know how it is that we are reaping joy in our own lives.

An appropriate meditation for this Shemini Atzeret yizkor service could be: I want to tell you about the blessings in my life right now, and the simchas that you have missed. I wish you were here to share them.

At the conclusion of Passover, we have yet another yizkor service, this one colored by “the empty seat at the seder table,” where we may have made Mom’s or Grandma’s matzo kugel or used her silverware, or told Uncle Joe’s joke, even though they were only with us through this spiritual legacy. So on this Passover commemoration of yizkor, I

have the sense that we commune with our dead through the legacy of traditions that our beloved dead passed down to us, the stories (haggadah means story) they told, the ways we still keep them close through memory and tradition.

An appropriate meditation for this Passover yizkor service might be: What traditions did you bring to your Passover seder this year that were inspired by your beloved dead? How did you invoke them on this holiday? In your mind’s eye, thank them for the memories and traditions that that they have inspired in your own Passover practice.

Only seven weeks later, we have a fourth yizkor service of the year at Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday of the giving of Torah, the giving of the values and commandments by which we Jews are meant to live our lives. On this yizkor commemoration, I have the sense that we are revisiting the values that were passed down to us generation to generation – the “how we are to live” message that was bequeathed to us by our ancestors, the messages that were both explicit and implicit in how they lived their lives.

An appropriate meditation for this Shavuot yizkor service could be: What “commandments”/values did your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles pass on to you that make you who you are today? In your mind’s eye, thank them for these gifts.

I am concerned that our connection to memory as a unique feature of Judaism has been eroding. Except for Yom Kippur, Jews, especially younger Jews, don’t seem to have that sense of commitment to honoring their beloved dead through the tradition of yizkor. Part of this is connected to our lack of familiarity with the flow of the Jewish calendar and the nuanced blessings that come with each of them. I believe that yizkor at each holiday time should share the flavor and message of that particular holiday, and I am grateful to Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan for modeling this kind of yizkor experience. He would offer the quiet time and reflective space during yizkor for us to actually speak to our dead in our mind’s eye, making it a very powerful and personal experience each and every time.

I think there is further work to be done to revitalize yizkor and holiday services at CBI. I will be leading the Shemini Atzeret and yizkor service at Congregation Beth Israel on Monday, October 8 at 9:00 AM. Please join us.

— Rabbi Pam Wax


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