Jonathan Muskat

How Yizkor Contextualizes the Joy of our Holidays

I often wondered why we recite Yizkor at the end of Pesach. Originally, the custom of reciting Yizkor was limited to Yom Kippur. The Sifri comments on a verse in the Torah in the context of the mitzvah of Eglah Arufah, “Kaper l’amcha asher padita” – atone for your nation that you redeemed. The Sifri explains that the phrase kaper l’amcha refers to the living, and the phrase asher padita this refers to the dead.  According to the Sifri, we ask for atonement for both the living and the dead on Yom Kippur. In fact, the Gemara in Erchin writes that the books of life and death are opened on Yom Kippur and we attempt to achieve atonement for both the living and the dead on Yom Kippur. This is the basis for the custom to give charity on Yom Kippur.

But what about Yizkor on Pesach?  We are not trying to achieve atonement on Pesach so why recite Yizkor then?  Rabbenu Simcha, one of the famed students of Rashi who wrote Machzor Vitry, wrote that one should collect charity on the last days of Yom Tov because on the last days of Yom Tov we read about charity in the Torah reading and the Levush writes that since we are giving charity, we also recite Yizkor so that the deceased can receive atonement from our charity.

However, I have a very basic question on this analysis.  Why are we reciting Yizkor, which is an expression of sadness, on Yom Tov, which is a day of happiness so much so that it cancels avelut?  If avelut and Yom Tov cannot co-exist, how can Yizkor and Yom Tov co-exist?

In 2014, David Brooks wrote an article in the New York Times about suffering where he explained that we live in a culture that loves to talk about happiness.  In fact, he wrote that in one three-month period last year, more than 1000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.  That being said, he wrote that, notwithstanding the focus on happiness, ultimately, when people remember the past, they often describe and feel formed through suffering.  In some strange way, they feel ennobled by suffering.  For example, Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathic after being struck with polio.  Additionally, he wrote that suffering drags us deeper into ourselves as it gives us a more accurate sense of our own limitations, what we can control and what we cannot control.

With this perspective in mind, perhaps we can argue that Yizkor can actually serve a similar role in the context of the celebration of our Chagim.  After we spend an entire holiday of Yom Tov with unadulterated joy, we engage in “Atzeret.”  The Torah refers to the last day of Pesach as “Atzeret,” meaning a day to “gather” or reflect upon the holiday experience.  Perhaps now after engaging in a complete week of unadulterated joy and forgetting about our sorrows, it is time to place our current joy in the context of our sorrows and our suffering that we can never have another Pesach Seder with a mother or a father who has passed and we can no longer take a Chol Hamoed trip with a spouse who has passed away.

We try to forget, and perhaps we are supposed to forget for most of this joyous holiday about the sadness of not being able to celebrate the Chag with those who are no longer with us.  However, before we leave this holiday, we must reflect. And this reflection, this recitation of Yizkor, can be extremely ennobling and transcendental.

David Brooks wrote that “it’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call.  They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless.  They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it.”  This is classic Rav Soloveitchik language.  When we think about suffering, the question is not why but for what purpose did we suffer.  David Brooks further wrote that “the right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure.  It’s holiness… It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.”

Perhaps this is an appropriate approach towards the sadness of Yizkor during the happiness of Yom Tov. True happiness is not wearing rose-colored glasses. but true happiness is experiencing the joy of lifnei Hashem – standing before God for an entire week of Yom Tov and then reflecting how to incorporate our present reality into a life of holiness.

Simply put, for example, during Yizkor when I think about my mother who passed away more than eight years ago and the tremendous loss that she died very young that there are no more semachot together and no more chagim together, my hope is that I will utilize that thought to dig deeper inside myself and redeem that loss by realizing how much she cared about our mesorah and transmitting that mesorah to her children, how much she cared about chagim and how much she cared about family harmony and shalom bayit.

Hopefully my response is to care more about continuing her legacy of mesorah, inspiring chagim and working to constantly increase shalom bayit.  My blessing and prayer to all of those reciting Yizkor is to utilize the feelings of loss and sadness to hopefully respond in a way that will ultimately bring more happiness to all of our lives.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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