Yizkor Sermon by Rabbi Pamela Gottfried
Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon
Rabbi Pamela Gottfried
October 8, 2011
For a printable version, please click here.
Time is a funny thing.
Remembering an event or person from the distance of time changes the way we feel about the very thing or person that we are trying to keep intact.
Sometimes, time softens the memory; seldom does time bring memories into sharper focus. Often, time heals the pain and remembering helps us feel better. Occasionally time drags the pain we have buried deep in our hearts to the surface. Remembering can make us suffer when we realize that we have not yet healed.
I spent Shavuot at Camp, at Ramah Darom, teaching Torah during Staff Week before the campers arrived. We were frustrated: we did not have much time to set up the various art studios in the Omanut building, as the holiday interrupted our work week. We had only just arrived on Tuesday, and then it was Shavuot for two days, and then it would be Shabbat, and then we would have just two more days before the session would begin. Staying focused on the joy of Shavuot presented the staff with—let’s call it— a challenge.
But there we were, on the second day of Shavuot and the 3rd day of staff week, in the crowded Bet Knesset: singing Hallel, reading Torah and before I knew it, saying Yizkor. It had been less than a month since Leigh Brody’s untimely death. I remember thinking, “It’s too soon.” Too soon to recite Yizkor for Leigh.
I thought that I would just stand quietly with my friend who had lost his mother early that spring. I also thought it was too soon for him to recite Yizkor for her, but his father had died a few years ago, so he was staying inside the sanctuary. I knew many Jews who believed that Yizkor is only supposed to be recited by orphans—those who had lost a parent—and everyone else should leave the room. My father observes this custom religiously, and he is still uncomfortable—after 20 years or so—with my leading Yizkor. But I wasn’t leaving on Shavuot; I had plenty of people to remember.
I was thinking about Angela, my neighbor & friend, who had also met with an untimely death several weeks before her 50th birthday. She didn’t complain when she was feeling a little run down: two kids, a husband, a part-time job, a garden in her yard—she had so much to take care of in her busy life. But she had to stop everything to battle lymphoma. Just ten days after we learned of her illness, we gathered at Arlington Cemetery to bury her. Her funeral was on Tisha B’Av; on Shavuot, a full year had not yet passed. I remember thinking, “It’s too soon.” Too soon to recite Yizkor for Angela.
Wasn’t there a rule, instituted by the rabbis nearly 2,000 years ago, about waiting to say Yizkor until the first year had passed? Even a cursory study of the Jewish burial and mourning customs reveals the rabbis’ sensitivity to the full range of human emotion, & illustrates their deep understanding of the human psyche. I felt certain about this rule that we do not say Yizkor in the first year, and I made a mental note to look it up after Shavuot.
During that Yizkor service, I remembering smiling, appreciating the rabbis who invented the concept of “too soon” centuries before the expression was coined. I remember feeling a surge of sympathy during the rabbi’s sermon, moved by his tears that arrived unbidden, as he remembered his own father’s death less than 18 months earlier. I remember thinking that I was so lucky to be saying Yizkor only for grandparents, as I suppressed the urge to spit in the evil eye during the service.
Shavuot ended; staff week began in earnest; the campers arrived, too soon.
Months later, I am home, sitting in my office, jotting down sermon notes, when I realize I never checked on the mourning custom of waiting a year to recite Yizkor. I pull a few books down from the shelves: Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning and Wolfson’s A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort. I am looking for a way out: I always choose a “life lesson that I learned at camp” to share on the High Holidays with the congregation. This has been a personal tradition for nearly a decade, but I am leaning toward breaking with tradition this year. It’s too soon.
Confident that Lamm will give me the “out” I seek, I turn to the chapter titled “Post-Mourning Practices and Procedures” and locate the question “When is Yizkor Recited?” on the bottom on p. 199:
Despite the common practice, yizkor should be recited beginning with the very first holiday after death. There is a widespread belief that yizkor may not be recited during the first year. This is an unfounded belief which may well be discarded.
Oh no. This can’t be right.
Yet, Lamm continues with an explanation of the correct custom: Precisely because yizkor is a redemptive prayer for the dead is reason enough for it to be recited during the first year, when the soul is said to be judged. There is no legitimate reason to delay it. Great scholars have noted the erroneous practice and have strongly decried it.
Okay, I am disappointed but not deterred. After all, Lamm always gives the traditional and often outdated answer. That’s why I also have Wolfson’s book, which is more modern & accessible.
In a section titled “Shloshim to Yizkor,” I find the question answered in one simple sentence: Do I observe Yizkor during the first year of mourning? “Contrary to popular belief, yes.” Apparently, it is not too soon.
Still, I cannot look back with enough distance to lend a perspective that I feel is required to make sense of this summer’s tragedy. I cannot find an enduring life lesson in the accidental death of a 16-year old boy. I cannot return to the still and stubborn rock that trapped him under the pounding, raging waters.
Wading through the pain of remembering makes me suffer, and I realize that I have not yet healed. His parents, his sister, his close family & friends, the campers and staff who knew him well, and those who barely knew him, in life, and those who only knew him in death. We have not healed from this loss. It’s too soon.
When a young person dies, rabbis often retell the story of Rabbi Meir and his wife Beruriah, whose two young sons died on Shabbat. I find that this story aggravates my pain, but I want to share some of the details now, just to illustrate a point.
Beruriah finds her sons’ lifeless bodies in their beds while Rabbi Meir is at Havdalah services. When he arrives home, she doesn’t tell him right away that they have died. Instead, she tells him a mashal, a parable, about a king who has loaned his most precious possessions to a couple for safekeeping, & has now decided to take them back. She asks her learned husband if they must return the king’s possessions. Meir grasps the subtext of her story immediately.
It is, I believe, an aspirational legend, rather than an inspirational one. We are not to question God’s decision at taking a child in the prime of his life. We are to possess the equanimity of Beruriah & Meir; to accept that children are not our possessions, but rather God’s treasures, to be restored to their rightful owner at any time. But I find that I cannot accept with such grace the enormity of the loss of Andrew Silvershein’s life.
I think that most of us—even if we aspire to achieve the kind of righteousness displayed by Beruriah & Meir—are not so easily comforted by an explanation that death is the natural order of life. In the moment that we confront death—especially the death of a young person—most of us feel that the natural order has been upset somehow. Facing the pain of loss, we rail against the unfairness of God’s capricious decrees.
Reciting yizkor within just a few months suffering such a loss seems too soon. The rabbis’ suggestion that we say yizkor to help the deceased person’s soul ascend to heaven not withstanding, the prevalent custom of waiting a year is more sensible for those who remain here on earth. We must take time to gather our memory after the loss before remembering it. Time helps us heal, softens the memory of that pain.
Last week, I stood on this bima while Cantor Russ so beautifully chanted the liturgy:
Each person’s origin is dust and each person will return to dust, his life spent seeking bread.
He is compared to a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, a vanishing dream.
As I listened to the melody, the words elicited memories, and I cried. I am not ready to accept the life lessons that I learned & taught at camp this past summer. And I know from the website that was created in Andrew’s memory, the FB group, and the emails & phone calls that I have received in the past three months, that I am not alone in my sorrow.
Before reciting yizkor today, I will remember the last time that I recited yizkor, on Shavuot, during staff week, before the campers arrived, before the tragic event that shaped & forever changed us.
Rabbi Marshall Lesack, the assistant director, my colleague & friend, shared a Hasidic teaching, an image that filled my mind during the yizkor service:
When a person dies, he or she is mourned by someone they loved in life, and every time that mourner recites the yizkor prayer, the mourner is holding on to the end of a rope. This rope stretches all the way to heaven, where , the comforting presence of God grips the other end tightly. Sometimes, our loss overwhelms us, and we drop our end of the rope. Sometimes, in our sorrow or panic, we grab onto it more tightly. But God never lets go of the end of the rope in heaven.
I remember, during Yizkor, closing my eyes and concentrating, and feeling the fibers of that rope scratching against the palm of my hand.
In sorrow, we remember our loved ones who are no longer here to hold our hands as we walk this earth. They have returned to the dust from which we were all created, and to where we all return. Yizkor is a time to reach for the rope: It is our connection to them, and to God, whose unbounded compassion for us can help us heal the pain as we grieve, and as we remember.