Category Archives: Yizkor

Join us on Monday to seal the holiday season

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

On Monday morning at 10am I will lead a service at CBI which will be the formal close, the “seal,” on our holiday season. Monday is the festival known as Shemini Atzeret. Shemini means “Eighth” — this holiday is the eighth day, coming right on the heels of the seventh day of Sukkot. But what is an atzeret?

The word atzeret means something like “holy pause.” There’s one other day in our tradition described with this word: Shavuot, which comes as the 50th day after 49 days of Counting the Omer. Shavuot is an atzeret, a day of holy pausing, the culmination of seven weeks of spiritual work. And Monday — Shemini Atzeret — is also a day of pausing, the culmination of the seven weeks of spiritual work we’ve done since Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the lunar month leading up to the Days of Awe.

Monday’s service will feature some morning prayers of gratitude and awareness, a guided meditation which will give us the opportunity to remember the last seven weeks of intensive holiday time, and the prayers of Yizkor, the memorial service which we recite four times a year. (I wrote more about that last year.) We’ll also dip into a special prayer for rain.

Our service will be intentionally spacious and uncluttered — in recognition of this special day which is like the silence following the song, the white space on the page which follows all of our holiday season’s many, many words.

Hope to see you on Friday night at 5:30 for our Sukkot / Shabbat potluck (please RSVP), on Saturday morning at 9:30 for Shabbat services, and on Monday morning at 10am for Shemini Atzeret.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Advertisements

The Yizkor of Yom Kippur, the Yizkor of Shemini Atzeret – what is Yizkor, anyway?

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

yahrzeitThis coming Shabbat / Yom Kippur morning (at the end of morning services) we’ll experience Yizkor — a 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 9:30am on Thursday 10/16) 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. (Even though mid-October won’t be winter yet, thank God. Some sources hold that the fourth yizkor of the year was once held in midwinter, but was moved to Shemini Atzeret for practical reasons of seasonally difficult travel.)

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 (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call” — an opportunity to go inside oneself, perhaps draped beneath one’s tallit, and call up the memory of the person one has lost, and imagine them, and say whatever it is that one most needs to say to that person right then and there.

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.

Rabbi Rachel

For more on Yizkor:

This was originally shared with the CBI community in fall of 2013; it is re-posted with some slight edits, and the dates have been shifted to reflect this year’s realities.

Shabbat (tomorrow), Yizkor (Monday), and the Counting of the Omer

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Those of you who were here at our second-night community seder heard me wax rhapsodic about the counting of the Omer. “Omer” means “measures;” originally it referred to measures of grain, and the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot were a time to count the days until the spring barley harvest when grain would be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God. In the rabbinic undertanding, the Omer period became a way of connecting Pesach to Shavuot on a spiritual level. These 49 days take us from liberation to revelation. At Pesach we celebrate freedom from constriction; at Shavuot we celebrate the revelation of Torah and entering into covenant with God.

One popular way of thinking about the Omer period connects each week (and each day within each week) with a different divine quality. This first week is the week of chesed, lovingkindness. What would it feel like to cultivate lovingkindness in our lives this week?

Another popular way of thinking about the Omer period connects each day with a different virtue which is associated with the process of “acquiring Torah,” preparing ourselves for revelation and schooling ourselves in practices which allow our best selves to unfold.

We’ll explore both of these in our Omer spiritual study group which will begin this afternoon. We’ll also explore some of this material in tomorrow’s Torah study after Shabbat morning services. Because it’s still Pesach, we’ll hear a special Pesach Torah reading, and we’ll sing an abbreviated Hallel tomorrow as well.

On Monday — Patriot’s Day — join Rabbi Pam Wax at 9am for a special Passover morning service which will feature Yizkor, the memorial prayers we are blessed to recite four times a year (at Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot.) Yizkor is a deep and meaningful practice of remembering our loved ones who have left this world. Please join us.

For those who would like to count the Omer each night at home, you can find the blessings here, and here are two places where you can sign up to receive daily Omer messages via e-mail (offering teachings and intentions relating to each day’s practice — and also a good reminder to count, too!) —  Making the Omer Count and Daily Omer Teaching.

Wishing all of y’all a Shabbat shalom — moadim l’simcha (a joyous festival) — and a meaningful Omer count!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

What is Yizkor, Anyway?

yahrzeitDear 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.

Rabbi Rachel

For more on Yizkor:

Shavuot reminders

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to remind you that Shavuot is coming soon!

Once again this year, the Congregation Beth Israel community, the Congregation Beth-El community, and the Williams College community will celebrate Shavuot together at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center on Tuesday, May 14. We’ll begin at 8:30pm with a short-and-sweet festival ma’ariv (evening) service, and then we’ll segue into an evening of studying and noshing. (There is always cheesecake!)

If you would like to offer a shiur / teaching, contact Rabbi Rachel Barenblat at rebrachel@cbiweb.org. Any topic which relates to Torah is appropriate, and you can teach for 15 minutes, half an hour, or longer, whatever is right for you. Join us for this evening of joy, celebration, and the opportunity to receive whatever Torah we most need revealed to us this year.

Also please join us on Shavuot morning, Wednesday May 15, for a festival service with Yizkor (the memorial service where we remember our beloveds who have died) led by Rabbi Pam Wax from 10-11:30. As it is customary to enjoy dairy on Shavuot, there will be chocolate cheesecake from S and S bakery in Riverdale — the best! (For more meditations on the meaning and beauty of Yizkor, here’s a post from Rabbi Pam from last fall.)

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

Yizkor tomorrow; May save-the-dates

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I hope this note finds you well; I hope you’re enjoying this seventh day of Pesach, which is traditionally understood as the anniversary of the day when we crossed through the Sea of Reeds!

I’m writing for three reasons. First, to remind you that although CBI follows Reform practice in observing seven days of Pesach, which means that tomorrow is “just” an ordinary Shabbat, we will offer a Yizkor (memorial) service tomorrow morning for anyone who wants to say the memorial prayers. I very much hope that you’ll be able to join us to pray the Yizkor prayers in person, but if you can’t make it and want to daven Yizkor at home, here’s a pdf of our Yizkor handout: CBI-Yizkor [pdf] Tomorrow’s Shabbat morning service will be co-led by me and by rabbinic student Lori Shaller from Martha’s Vineyard.

Second: our month of May is going to be very exciting! On Shabbat morning, May 5, I’ll be offering CBI’s first-ever Rumi Shabbat service, in which each of the prayers of the morning service will be paired with poems by the Persian mystic and poet Rumi. Then, on May 18, we’ll welcome Rabbi Everett Gendler and his wife Mary to speak at CBI at 7pm. Their presentation will be entitled Teaching Shalom in the Shadow of Tibet.

Rabbi Gendler, who installed the first-ever solar-powered ner tamid (eternal light) in 1978, has been described as “the father of Jewish environmentalism.” During the 1960s, he played a pivotal role in involving American Jews in the civil rights movement, leading groups of rabbis to participate in protests across the South and persuading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to participate in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. Today Rabbi Gendler remains an eloquent Jewish advocate for the path of nonviolence. His work has taken him across the world – most notably to India where he and his wife Mary teach the principles of nonviolence to Tibetan exiles. Join us for an evening with the Gendlers on May 18; a Q-and-A and dessert reception will follow.

And thirdly, and finally: on that same weekend, on Shabbat morning May 19, I’ll be co-leading services with two of my rabbinic school colleagues! Join us that morning for a joyful and spirited Shabbat service, co-led by rabbinic student David Curiel and rabbinic student Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser (and me.) More information will follow as the date approaches.

Okay: that’s the news from CBI! I wish all of you a joyous sixth day of the Omer (today) and a Shabbat shalom (tonight.)

Take care,

Reb Rachel