Shavuot Yizkor 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Shavuot Yizkor 5776

Good Yom Tov.

Let me share a story which was a source of embarrassment for me, but also a great lesson. And the way I understood the moment back then is very different from the way I understand it today.

Let me tell you about the moment.

I had my first student pulpit in the little town of Iselin, New Jersey. The congregation was about to go out of business. They had a building they could no longer afford. There were three employees- two weren’t Jewish. There was a maintenance worker, a secretary and a student rabbi.

They saw their last best chance at remaining viable in hiring a young rabbinical student. I was paid about 10K and my responsibilities included tutoring a couple of B’nai Mitzvah kids, leading services Erev Shabbat, Shabbat morning and holidays, doing a few funerals and life cycle events which were minimal. I also got a house to live in as I commuted daily back and forth to Manhattan for school.

Very few people came to services, but I knew that on Yom Kippur, there in central Jersey, I would have a full house. I learned from the baalei batim that the room would be full for Yizkor, and being young and idealistic, I believed that I would give the sermon of a lifetime. I could begin to transform the community. This was my opportunity!

I worked day and night on the sermon and come about 1:00 p.m. on Yom Kippur, the place was fully packed. All was going according to the plan.

I gave the sermon, received pleasant nods, did a beautiful Yizkor service, and turned my back to begin davening musaf. When I finished after the silent amidah and turned to face the congregation…you guessed it! Three quarters, maybe 85% of the congregation had streamed out and had gone home!

I never saw most of them again!

They bought tickets.

They were Yizkor Jews.

They needed to be there, then.

The phenomenon, of course, is real. Most of you need to be here now. Some of you are not here because it is Shavuot. No, you are here for Yizkor.

I confess, as a young rabbi, I judged this pretty harshly.

I don’t anymore- know that. I welcome you. As I have experienced more in life, including the death of a parent, I understand that you need to be here. That you need to be here together with a community of people who remember, who have experienced loss.

And I don’t think it’s because of my words. It’s not because of the words of Yizkor. I think it is because of something else.

And, I’m not sure I will be able to capture that “something else” in words, but I will try. And we will continue to try together as we share this life of ours over time, god-willing, for many years.

I think a lot about the things we do as Jews. I think about the things that we do all the time and why we do them. I have learned that some of the meaning is eternal- we do things for the same reason that we did them in the beginning. And some things take on new meaning as times change and as our conditions change, as we get older, and as the world changes.

Yizkor is deeply rooted in our culture and our value system. We believe in the power of memory. We sanctify memory as we express words of holiness. We also believe in the fundamental importance of life. When we state words of sanctification at the time of death or yahrzeits or at Yizkor, we are also saying that life really matters, life is a treasure.

And we are sanctifying love. The bonds we shared with mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children, grandparents and family members are so strong that we feel them even now, sometimes years after the deaths of our loved ones. We are sanctifying love.

And we do it with shared words, prayer, and something else that is even more powerful. We are doing this in shared silence.

For I believe that the most powerful moment of all is when we stand and say the Yizkor prayer, the individual Yizkor prayers for our loved ones, and we do it in silence. It is a shared silence. It is a powerful silence.

And I know that the words of the Yizkor paragraph are only part of that moment. The words are simple but there is another part. It is the moment that your heart touches the spirit of your loved one. There is no scientific evidence of this, but it is our experience.

And so in the silence of the moment, a shared silence, a real conversation and connection takes place.

And herein, I thought of a deep connection between our journey into a new book of Torah that began on Shabbat, the Book of Bamidbar, Numbers, in the wilderness, our celebration of this holiday of the giving of Torah, and this moment of Yizkor.

All three have components of silence.

In the wilderness, in the desert, one can find profound silence. On our last congregational trip to Israel, we travelled to a place called Mitzpeh Ramon in the middle of the Negev. It’s a beautiful place. The desert is an aesthetic wonderland. The geology is incredible. The place we stayed was unbelievable, but I took the group there for another reason- I wanted them to be in that silence.

When Israel stood at Sinai, there was thunder and lightning and the sound of a shofar….but at that very place, Elijah stood a few hundred years later and experienced God in the kol demmamah dakah…

In the still silent voice.

This is defined by Jonathan Sacks as the voice you can only hear if you are listening.

The midbar is the wilderness. There you can hear the voice of the me-dabeir…only if you listen.

And no wonder then that there are so many pursuing spiritual practices that encourage meditation in silence.

As we are bombarded by noise, we need to be trained in silence, because we hear much better in silence then we do when we are speaking.

This morning we will share that.

It’s a funny thing, though! We Jews are always talking- we always have what to say. We disagree. We argue. We joke. Our holiest texts are about conversations. The first translation of the Torah into Aramaic translated the words from creation: “And man became a living soul” as “And man became a talking /speaking soul.”

It is in language that we communicate, find meaning, and develop relationships. Words in our tradition make or break worlds.

But there is a yin to that yang. There is a balance we must pursue and preserve.

Because we also have to know silence as a spiritual and psychological expression.

And we have learned that sometimes after death, the only response is silence. We saw that with Aaron after the death of his children.

We know that from the laws that guide our presence at a house of shivah. We are to be before the mourner in silence.

Early in the Torah, after Hagar and Ismael are banished, God, we learn, hears the silent cry of the child- and it is a silent cry. In Hassidic and mystical traditions, silence is practiced as a form of communication with God.

There is actually something known as a taanit dibbbur- a fast from speaking. We know of monks who take vows of silence- there were mystics who did this too.

The Psalmist wrote:
[blockquote name=””]

The heavens declare the glory of God

The skies proclaim the work of his hands

Day to day they pour forth speech

Night to night they communicate knowledge

There is no speech. There are no words.

Their voice is NOT heard

Yet their music carries throughout the earth


And so I know why we are here. We are here to listen to silenced voices. Our listening is not through our ears, but through our hearts.

And it’s so powerful and affirming when we can do this together. And in this listening to these voices, of our loved ones, we continue a conversation, perhaps we learn something again, and perhaps we simply feel and express love. It is said that when one dies they are no longer with us physically, but there is a dimension of relationship that remains…

Together, now we turn to Yizkor. We will take more time than usual to stand in silence….and feel what we feel. It is a gift we receive from this beautiful tradition.

Please turn, now to Yizkor.