Yizkor — Rmember (5771)
What I remember is that in 1957, when my next-door neighbor Nadey Libster was eight years old, his father died of cancer and he became the only kid I ever knew who stayed inside shul for the Yizkor Service. The rest of us kids were hastily ushered out of the room, as we were every year — free to run and play. God forbid we should think about anyone dying; thinking about such things could maybe make them happen —you never knew— such was the power of the ‘ayin hara‘, the evil eye. And God forbid that we, the children of holocaust refugees, should be sad, when we had no reason to be — such was the shroud of silence that protected us children from the weight of the pain that was still so raw for the survivors in our congregation. And I remember the parents, coming to get us afterwards, teary and red-eyed.
In those days, Yizkor was always after the Torah Service, though many communities, like ours at Temple Beth Sholom, have the service later in the day. It's usually a time when shuls are packed. For no matter how much one might get out of the habit of going to services, there's something about Yizkor that calls us back. The Yizkor Service, in the form that we know it today, is about 500 years years old. It includes various readings, prayers for family and friends who have died, the 23rd Psalm, and two ’Él Màlé’s: one that we say as a community for our personal losses, and one for unknown martyrs and those who died in the holocaust. The service ends with the kaddish.
When did we start memorializing the dead? I am indebted to my colleague Dr. Simcha Raphael for his research.
According to Dr. Raphael, some form of liturgical practice of memorializing the dead dates back to the Rhineland at the end of the 11th century (c. 1096 CE) following the First Crusade, when thousands of Jews were slaughtered and had no one to mourn them. Over the next two centuries, Germanic Jewish communities began to include in these prayers the names of benefactors and community leaders who had died. Then, at the time of the Black Death in 1348, 6,000 Jews were slaughtered throughout Europe when they were accused of poisoning the wells, and more prayers were written honoring those who died.
Soon every family wanted to mention by name their deceased relatives who were neither martyrs nor benefactors. Thus emerged the liturgy which became the paradigm of our present-day service.
I thought that in order to help us prepare for saying Yizkor today, we could take a look at that part of the service where we reflect on the loss of a parent (on page 687). Let me first give you a literal, word-by-word translation of the Hebrew:
“May God remember the soul of [You fill in the blank] who has gone to his or her world; I hereby promise tsedakah in memory of his|her soul; Let his|her soul be bound up in the continuum of life; may his|her rest be honorable; let him|her have full and abundant joy in your presence, and sweet pleasures at your right hand for eternity.”
Now let's look at the English translation of this same paragraph that's in our book (on page 687):
“May God remember the soul of ___ who has gone to his eternal home. In loving testimony to his life, I pledge charity to perpetuate ideals important to him. May I prove myself worthy of the gift of life and the many other gifts with which he blessed me. May these moments of meditation link me more strongly with his memory and with our entire family. May he rest in dignity and peace.”
So, our book's translation says that we, the living, pledge charity as a symbol of our gratitude for the life and ideals given us, so that we may prove ourselves worthy of our life and gifts given us.
Whereas in the Hebrew, the emphasis is on the quality of the afterlife of the soul of the deceased, with the implication that we, the living, can enhance the quality of their soul's afterlife and make them worthy of dwelling in God's presence in the afterlife by our pledging tsedakah on their behalf.
Why the difference?
Was our translator uncomfortable with this description of the soul's afterlife? Was he uncomfortable with the mercenary nature suggested in this exchange of our donations for their posthumous reward?
What does our tradition teach us about the afterlife, and what do we believe is our relationship to those who have died? It turns out there are many divergent and often contradictory views about the afterlife throughout our history and throughout the different streams of Judaism, with no official view ever agreed upon.
Some teachings talk about collective redemption and resurrection at the end of days; others talk about the world to come as an afterlife realm for each individual.
If you saw the movie A Serious Man by the Coen brothers, you would have heard the character of Rabbi Nachner say “The ‘Olàm Habà’, the world to come, is not a geographical place like Canada … nor a gold-star VIP lounge … the Olam Haba is in the bosom of Abraham.” —A New-Testament reference, so not really a Jewish view.
But, fairly central to Jewish thought is the Rabbinic doctrine of divine judgement —the idea that human beings at the end of their life are subjected to God's reckoning.
It is this divine judgement, and its consequences for our souls in the world to come, that our prayer suggests we can influence with the pledge of tsedakah. Where does this tradition originate from?
Once again I am indebted to Dr. Raphael for his research. He tells us that the notion that the living can redeem the souls of the dead is first found in the book of Maccabees, where there is a reference to offering sacrifices on behalf of fallen comrades so that they might be set free from their sins. In the midrash tanhuma, which dates back to the 10th century, there is a passage that says that the living have a responsibility to redeem the dead so that those dead souls might then reciprocate by putting in a good word for the living. We do something good for them; they put in a good word for us. As the poet Birago Diop said, “The dead have a pact with the living.”
In another Talmudic teaching, it says one goes to the cemetery “in order that the dead should intercede for mercy on our behalf.” So while many of our ancestors may never have questioned whether there was life after death, and believed in an ongoing relationship to the dead, this may not be your theology. And as Rabbi Manhoff told us on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, it's not his, either.
In fact, a quick glance through other siddurim, through new ones and older ones, shows a lot of variation in both the Hebrew and their English translations. Only a few siddurim have the same passage that is in our conservative makhzor with this elaborate description of the soul dwelling at God's right hand, enjoying eternal pleasures. Most siddurim simply refer to the soul resting in Gan Eden — in paradise. Some siddurim leave out the tsedakah component entirely, and simply pray for the soul to be at peace. Some include the pledge of tsedakah piece, but say bli neder —without a promise— a kind of a hedge just in case one forgets and commits the sin of breaking a promise.
It's clear, then, that the rabbis themselves are still working out what should we say at Yizkor; and it suggests that there is room for each and every one of us to find our own meaning in saying Yizkor.
So I'd like to tell what the Yizkor prayer means to me, and hope it will be helpful to you. I'll start by telling you that, in fact, I do have an ongoing relationship with the dead, and that I do think about the afterlife —about my afterlife, that is— after someone I know dies: what happens to me afterwards, in my life. Some deaths come too soon; some deaths are unexpected; some deaths we think we are prepared for, but really we are rarely ready: we don't usually know when a conversation is the last conversation, with so much that may be left unsaid, unresolved.
So what it's meant for me, in this afterlife of mine, is that I am still in relationship with people who have died. I miss them, I talk to them in my mind, I ask them questions about our relationship that I wasn't ready to ask them when they were still alive. I show off my accomplishments, and wish they could witness them; and yes, I still have some of the same old arguments, still trying to prove my point of view. What helps me go forward? How do I resolve these lingering feelings?
And here is what makes this Yizkor so special: This Yizkor, on Yom Kippur, becomes yet another forgiveness prayer — yet so different than all the other forgiveness prayers of this day, this forgiveness prayer devoted exclusively to those no longer with us, that comes late in the afternoon when we are tired, hungry, vulnerable, and open. It is during this Yizkor that I am given the opportunity to forgive myself for cutting off that last phone conversation with my father: I was always in a hurry; he always wanted to chat longer; and then he died. It's during this Yizkor that I have the opportunity to forgive my mother for her harsh ways; to let go of being angry — for my sake in this world, if not for her sake in the world to come.
For this Yizkor to feel honest and meaningful, I don't want to sentimentalize those relationships. I don't just want to remember the ideals and gifts they may or may not have passed down. I want to remember those relationships exactly as they were, and then be able to forgive myself and them for our failings, for what we never got a chance to repair or finish. Archbishop Desmond Tutu could have been talking about our Yizkor prayer when he said: “Without memory, there can be no healing; without forgiveness, there can be no future.”
Whom do you want to forgive? What do you need to forgive yourself for?
And what about this tsedakah we are pledging? In my shul back in Washington Heights, Yizkor was always followed by the appeal for donations to the shul. Some shuls have the appeal right before the service, and this makes sense: Yizkor takes place in the synagogue, in community with each other.
So, while you may give tsedakah all year long to causes that are important to you, this tsedakah pledge that you make when you say Yizkor is an opportunity to give back to our community, to Temple Beth Sholom, as an expression of our gratitude to each and every one of us for being the container for the feelings we go through, for holding us all on this journey of forgiveness and healing.
And finally, let me close with asking, what about the children? Should they stay? Should they leave?
Times have changed, and I think the choice should now be up to each family; how much do you want to share with your children? For myself, I hope that the more I am willing to share my experiences and feelings with them now, the less they will have to puzzle out or forgive after I'm gone.
May your prayer be hearfelt and nourishing.
We turn now to page 684 for the Yizkor Service.