Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
On Yom Kippur morning (at the end of morning services), we’ll experience Yizkor — our memorial service during which we remember our beloveds who have died. Twelve days later, on Shemini Atzeret, we’ll experience Yizkor again (at our morning service led by Rabbi Pam Wax at 9am on Thursday 9/26.) What exactly is Yizkor, and why are we saying it twice in such rapid succession?
The word Yizkor means “Remember!” — and the service with that name is when we remember our beloved dead. We say the prayers of Yizkor four times a year. I follow the tradition which maps these four Yizkor services to the four seasons. Pesach – springtime. Shavuot – summertime. Autumn – Yom Kippur. Winter – Shemini Atzeret.
You may now be thinking: wait a minute. Winter?! Shemini Atzeret isn’t during the wintertime (especially not this year, when our holidays are so early on the Gregorian calendar!) Some sources suggest that the fourth repetition of Yizkor was originally meant to happen at midwinter… but because that’s the rainy season in Israel, and arduous winter travel could keep people from making it to Jerusalem to gather for this memorial remembrance, the sages of our tradition moved the wintertime Yizkor to that “extra day” at the end of Sukkot.
Shemini Atzeret means “the pause of the 8th day.” Sukkot (in Israel and in the Reform tradition of which we are a part) lasts for seven days. On the 8th day, our tradition teaches, God says to us: wait! don’t go! Linger with Me a little longer? We call that day “the pause,” or “the lingering,” of the 8th day. And it’s on that extra day after Sukkot, when Sukkot is over but we haven’t yet pulled away from God’s presence, that we recite Yizkor for the second time during this fall holiday season.
The experience of Yizkor is different at each of these holidays.
Of the Yom Kippur Yizkor, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur writes: “For an entire day, through fast and introspection, we face our own mortality and dive into our deaths by playing the dead. But equally, we are the living who seek to reunite with those who are really dead. Yizkor arrives with the opportunity to summon our beloved ones who have left and to remember them. As we remember them, we should marvel at the fact that the relationships we had with them remain alive as long as we are alive to do the remembering.”
Of the Shemini Atzeret Yizkor, Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “On Sh’mini Atzeret we remember the dead in yizkor and then pray for water. Is our water prayer a plea for drops of rain alone — or also for tears, the ability to cry? Tears less exalted than those of Yom Kippur, less frightened than those of Tisha B’Av — but tears of memory and compassion?”
What Yizkor affirms for me is that our relationships with those we have loved (or perhaps not-loved) continue even when the person in question has died…and that there is wisdom in pausing, four times a year, to connect with memory and loss. There is deep spiritual wisdom in taking the time to remember.
My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi speaks of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call” — an opportunity to go inside, perhaps draped beneath one’s tallit, and call up the memory of the person we have lost, and imagine them before us face-to-face, and say whatever it is that we most need to say to that person at this moment in this year of our lives.
I hope you’ll join us for Yizkor: on Yom Kippur (probably around noon, though it follows immediately upon our morning service, so the best way to be sure you’ll make it to Yizkor is to come to morning davenen!) and on Shemini Atzeret, that day of holy pausing and lingering just a little bit longer — with God, with this festival season, and with those whom we have lost but will never forget.
For more on Yizkor: