Yizkor is the Hebrew word associated with the command to remember (זכור).
Am Yisrael has a long memory. Am Yisrael needs its long memory for memory is synonymous with its history. It is one of the pillars of its foundation.
Last week Jews were commemorating the holy day of Yom Kippur. Part of its services include the “Yizkor” prayer which is dedicated to the memory of all who have passed away in the history of Am Yisrael. During that prayer we remember our parents, relatives and friends who are no longer with us. We remember all Jews who died through history, those who died in fire, those who expired during torture for remaining loyal to their heritage, and those who died during efforts to forcefully convert them. We also remember those who perished in the Shoah, all the women, the children and all the innocent victims. We remember our brave soldiers, all of the Israeli soldiers who died in the defense of our Jewish Homeland.
The decree to remember not only laces through the Yizkor prayer. Yom Kippur services are sodden with the recurring reminder of our forefathers, Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov and foremothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah. The machzor (High Holiday Prayer book) repeatedly refers to our duty to fulfill our obligations in their, and through them, our, unbreakable covenant with G-d.
Yom Kippur, however, is not the only time during the Jewish year in which we are commanded to remember. During Passover, we are told not only to remember but also to remind others, to educate others about our history. “You should tell your Son (והגדת לבנך),” the Passover Hagaddah directs us. We are commanded to share the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Likewise, we are commanded to circumcise our sons so that they bear on their flesh the constant reminder of the Eternal Covenant G-d made with Avraham. In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to remember the Shabbat and keep it Holy. Shabbat is the sign and reminder of the Covenant G-d made with Am Yisrael at Mount Sinai.
It is not only the good, though, that Am Yisrael, is instructed to remember. “זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים” (“Remember what Amalek did to you when you came out of Egypt.”) Deuteronomy 25;17 is an important tenet in the history of Am Yisrael, a principle of which we are reminded a few times in our Tanach. We remember the destruction of our Temples, of our cities and of our Land. We remember our various exiles, the pain we incurred, the suffering and the pledge to return to our Homeland. We remember our saddest moments as a nation at the peak of our joy, and continue to pledge our loyalty to our Jewish collective memory as we unanimously and solidly repeat, “Never Again!”
Last but not least, Am Yisrael will never forget those who have been kind to it throughout history. We remember those who saved us and truly and sincerely advocated for us. Remember the story of the spies that Moses sent to tour the Land before conquering it? We only remember the names of two of them, Calev Ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua Bin Nun. Why? Because these were the only two spies who spoke favorably about the Land. They are the ones who entered the annals of history because of their advocacy for Eretz Yisrael.
We also auspiciously remember those who were kind to the Jews during some of our hardest and most horrific periods. All one has to do is go to Yad Vashem and see the Avenue of the Righteous to realize that.
Yizkor, the act, the practice, is the key to ensuring that past mistakes are not repeated, provided that the proper lessons are learned and internalized. Let us hope that in the coming year Am Yisrasel in particular, and the world in general, will re-read its memory book and save our children from the need to relive some of the sad episodes of our joint past eras.
Shana Tova and Chag Sameach