This is as solemn and serious a moment as we find in our year. We are here in the sanctity of this space sharing a moment that is deeply personal – together – with an entire community. I’ve often said that, in that fact, there is SOME comfort.
We’re not alone in our heartbreak and our yearnings for loved ones now gone.
We’re affirming something, it’s found in the very essence of the word YIZKOR. You will remember!
Memory is so central to the Jewish people. We’re very good at memory. And we have ritualized. We do so as a people when we remember important moments like Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Hanukah, Purim – just to name a few. Through ritualized prayer and acts we keep alive a collective consciousness.
Yizkor is much more personal. Each one of us sits here with our own personal memories, we feel the presence of those who gave us life – mothers and fathers. We feel the lives of those whom we loved and with whom we built families, husbands, and wives. And for some, we relive the tragedy, the unspeakable, which today is spoken, the loss of children.
This is not intended to be glum or to create resentments and extend pain… No, I think the intention is different. The intention here is rooted in the very notion that love never dies. It’s rooted in the idea that when you live, you will die. But there will be those who survive, they will remember you, they will carry you in their hearts and minds and through their behavior, their acts of goodness and kindness and charity. It’s memory, but it’s also what we refer to in the Amidah as “Mechayeh Meitim” bringing life to death.
My son, Avi, told me that sometimes it’s to reframe the notion of remembering the dead, to a notion that “the dead live with us.”
Yizkor is also a values statement “Life Matters!” And we have the possibility of creating impact beyond our days on earth…
It’s ironic – This service of remembering the dead is a powerful statement of our choosing life – knowing its frailty and it incredible significance and importance. This above all: We choose life!
I know we have all reflected and heard so much about the “near miss” of hurricane Irma. We were fortunate – we all know that now… I also think that we have suffered a type of Post-Traumatic Stress…
And interestingly, it was not so much about what – it’s more about what could have happened.
I want to take a couple of moments to reflect on the experience before the storm…
If you were like me then the days and the moments before Hurricane Irma were marked by a tremendous amount of uncertainty. There was the obvious uncertainty as to where Irma would make landfall and how large she was. But there was also the lingering question of “Do we leave?” and “When do we leave?”.
Thankfully we have a very good friend who has some expertise on weather patterns and she kept us abreast of the twists and turns, the highs and lows of the hurricane path. And so, with our daughter and son-in-law, grandson and dog plus their friends from south beach we dug in and camped out.
I don’t want you to think that my experience was any different than any of yours or certainly any more difficult… We had minor damage and power outage that lasted too long. But I also had some thoughts to share with you. It’s about leaving. It’s about the pain of separation.
When I was thinking about either leaving or protecting the “things” we own I quickly did some kind of mental inventory. Perhaps to my surprise, I didn’t think of anything, any “THING” that felt so important at that moment. Yes, of course, pictures, and important papers for identification, but not much else. I had a poncho ready, some hiking boots, a few pairs of pants that I would grab… and socks and underwear. Nothing else really mattered.
I recalled a now legendary story of a student applying for admissions to the rabbinical school at JTS. When one of the “giants” of the faculty asked at the interview: “Mister Schwartz, suppose you were going to the north pole and you might be stranded there, what would you bring?” The student, trying to incur favor immediately responded: I would bring my talis and tefillin, my siddur and maybe a volume of shas (Talmud)” The wise rabbi responded: “Nu? Not a coat? Boots? A hat?”
As I found myself wandering around my home before the onset of the storm (I did a lot of wandering in a small space, as well as had a lot of wandering thoughts!), I walked by this beautiful oil portrait of my mother. The painting has great significance. It was done of her when she was about seven years old in Germany, probably around 1930. And when I grew up it hung in my grandmother’s apartment. There was always something hauntingly captivating about the portrait and my mother’s expression. After my grandmother passed away the portrait went to my mom. When my mother was clearing her belongings for her last move to assistant living she gave the portrait to me. While she was still alive, it hung on the eastern wall of our dining room, right behind her Shabbat dinner seat. I sat across from her and when I would do Kiddush, I would imagine that the portrait would make me sad after she died. That hasn’t been the case. The picture makes me smile and evokes warm memories and love.
So, I passed the picture and I wondered where it would be the safest. I decided that if I stayed home, it would be safest exactly on the wall where it hung. But then I was flooded with other thoughts.
Because that picture is also a symbol of exile, leaving home, evacuation, immigration. And I thought, imagine if I am going through this angst, believing that I would be ok and would return, the feelings of a family when they had to pick up and leave because of another, even more devastating threat to their lives. I could understand in a different way people who didn’t leave, who believed the storm would pass, who had too much invested in their home and homeland. I recently read that Elie Wiesel said that his homeland was his friends, his relationships. I think I got that from my Mom. My homeland is my family, my wife and kids. My homeland is my community. My homeland is in my friends; all past and present and yes, future.
And then I thought about how one decides what one leaves behind. If you are escaping for your life, everything is replaceable. But if not? How do we prioritize? It’s interesting that so many would choose photos. Because they are a captured part of personal history. We choose that which proves our identity.
My family was fortunate. They brought furniture and linens and paintings and clothing from Germany. They brought ritual objects; candle sticks and Kiddush cups, a shabbes lamp, channukiah, silver and china, tea set, coffee grinder, books and more. But resettlement was undoubtedly tough. I now wonder if they yearned to go back. I never heard that; but I wonder, because it had been home for generations. I’m sure that the fact of their Jewishness, which was determinant in their lives created a consciousness that exile was a condition to transcend and make meaning from.
The hurricane was nothing in comparison. But it has given me much to think about… and to feel grateful for.
NOTES FOR ME: (Last 3rd paragraph)
Why do we choose to take the photo? Maybe it’s obvious… but it gives past life… They are a way of allowing the dead to stay with us.
A friend here told me that before the hurricane her elderly mother came to her home. She brought with her one item! Just one item…
A picture of her son
Who had passed away years ago.
My family (emphasize)
They were important – passed through the generations, and they reflected the meaning of our tradition, the eternal nature of our values.
Through those holy objects then, not only do ancestors from two generations live, but from hundreds and hundreds of years.
NOTES FROM ME
This hurricane was nothing compared to the storm it could have been or other storms in our lives, but it has taught me some lessons… And at Yizkor it opens challenges and a question – to the living.
The challenge is to think about what you will leave behind, and what do you think is important and meaningful. Here I would venture to guess it is family, love and the integrity of your relationship.
And I also think it is the connection to a culture, a people, a community, a synagogue.
For this is how memory is preserved, made meaningful and allows those who have died to live on in our hearts.