The Revisitations of Yizkor
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Long before literary theorists knew about reader-response theory, Jews understood that the power of any narrative, Torah or any other, lies not in the origins or historicity of that story, but rather in our ability to draw meaning from that story and apply that meaning to our own lives. As Solomon Schechter famously noted: “It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history.” (Studies in Judaism, p. 15) At our Passover seders, we recall the Exodus not as an exercise in history, but as an effort to leverage that story of liberation to guide our own struggles. On Rosh Hashanah, we invoke the creation of the world not in order to establish chronology, but to remind ourselves of the creative possibilities embedded in our humanity. As the historian Yosef Yerushalmi wrote in his book Zakhor, while it may have been the Greeks who were the fathers of history, “the fathers of meaning in history were the Jews.” (p. 8) No doubt, when we read, recall, and tell our stories, we do so with an eye to what did or didn’t happen. But as much as – if not more than – the facts themselves, the Jewish act of remembrance, of Yizkor, is about making meaning; in other words, how we relate to the tale we tell, how we leverage that story into our own existence, and perhaps most importantly, the degree to which the story we recall does or doesn’t impact the narratives of our own lives.
All of which, of course, is precisely the point of Yizkor, our service of remembrance. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters – we recall one or more loved ones, their stories all marked by a beginning and an end. The task of yizkor is fundamentally different than the eulogies delivered upon their passing, the grief-filled words spoken at graveside. At risk of stating the obvious, yizkor is as much about we the living as it is about the dead. It is here, in the Yizkor service, that we ask the question of how each one of us relates to the story of the lives of the loved ones whom we recall. Their Torah has concluded, but it continues to teach. We revisit their stories, as with the Torah, relating to them differently at every Yizkor service. Yizkor reminds us that the interpretive process continues. Each year our focus may change, a different aspect of our loved one emerges. With the passage of time, our perspective changes. We become different people and so our memories of our loved ones will inevitably change as well. Yizkor is not only an evolving experience, but it is meant to be empowering. In every Yizkor we are granted the opportunity to learn anew from the lives of our loved ones, their grace, their struggles, and yes, even their shortcomings. Their humanity, no different than our own, was marked by imperfections. The task of Yizkor is not to judge, but to understand; to understand and to learn; and then of course, to apply what we have learned. The revisitations of our Yizkor prayers are meant to spur our own growth – continued efforts not just to honor the lives of our loved ones, but towards making our own lives worthy of remembrance.
The most moving scene of all of biblical literature is, I believe, the final passage of Deuteronomy: the verses relating the death of Moses. “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” (34:10) According to tradition, the final verses of his life were penned by Moses himself as his tears dropped onto the parchment below. Then a divine kiss took his soul, and it ascended to the heavens. We will read these verses, and then, seamlessly, direct our attention to the Garden of Eden, the creation of life. The same divine breath, neshamah, infused into Adam and Eve – death and life literally in the same divine breath: This is the message not only of the festival of Simhat Torah, but of Yizkor itself. To embrace those irreplaceable loved ones whose souls are now in God’s eternal embrace. They have breathed their last breaths, and we today breathe deeply, seeking to fill our own lives with meaning and purpose guided by their memory. May their beautiful neshamot inform us, guide us, and inspire us, as we unroll the next chapters of the scrolls of our own lives.