Howard Goldsmith
Dad, Husband, Rabbi, Outdoorsman, Skier, Cook, Dreamer

Tears of Yizkor, Joys of N’ilah

I want to tell you why I cry at Yizkor. I want to tell you why I smile at N’ilah.

Yom Kippur is exhausting for those of us up on the bimah. Exhausting and still exhilarating. There is nothing better than looking out from my lectern, looking at the fully expanded sanctuary filled with chairs, looking at the sea of chairs filled with people. And not anonymous people, not like the first year I served you and I didn’t know many of you. Now the people in those chairs are people I know and care for. I’ve officiated at your b’nei mitzvah and stood with you under the chuppah. We’ve welcomed Shabbat and worked on making our community better and stronger. You’ve supported the work of the congregation with your donations and your hard work. I know you. And I know your kids and your parents. Yom Kippur is exhilarating because we’re all together. There is nothing better.

And Yom Kippur is exhausting. We spend months – literally – getting ready. The synagogue staff works hard to arrange parking and seating and the break fast and the donation cards in your books and the bimah flowers and cleaning the windows and straightening out that sign in the parking lot that used to lean over a bit. In the middle of summer, your clergy begin planning the music and the sermons and the service honors and the Torah readings and finding ways to innovate and still hold on to the traditions that connect us to our past and to our people’s past. And then we worry about how you will react to it all. That worry – largely unnecessary because you are so supportive – that worry is exhausting.

After the grand morning service and the lively youth service and fun kids’ services, we gather together again for the afternoon. Several hours of praying begin with a Torah reading that calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves: the commandment that is most self-evident and hardest to fulfill – no pressure. From Torah we move to our healing service. The sanctuary begins to fill and I look out and see people who I know are not well and I see people whose loved ones are not well. As we read prayers for healing and as the cello plays stirring pieces, in ones and twos you approach our open ark to offer personal prayers. As your rabbi, I sometimes know what – or who – you pray for and my heart goes out to you. Sometimes we embrace as you leave the bimah making care and concern physical and real and imminent.

And then Yizkor. For some reason, the Yizkor sermon is the easiest one for me to write each year. But it is the hardest to give. Each word is a vessel for memory and for grief and as I deliver it I cannot help but channel your grief and your memory through my heart and into each word. Those feelings join my own and my heart breaks over and over again. All year long I walk with you through the valley of the shadow and I am able to be strong, to help you through the rough parts, to be strong and caring and calm in the midst of your losses. And then, at Yizkor, with all of you in the room, with the memories of my dear grandparents and my uncles, with all of that, my emotions flow through my broken heart and my voice catches and the tears sting my eyes and overflow. You patiently wait for me to… to… to breath. And then I continue the sermon ending always in tears with a crack in my heart. Yizkor continues with its poetry and its music and its tears and I feel myself hollow out. A year’s worth of emotion and grief and sadness runs through me, through the crack my heart, and we cry – together.

And then, as the poet says, through that crack, that crack in my heart, the light comes in. Our n’ilah ritual starts with us in the depths of the valley of memory. And then, word by word, page by page, we begin to climb. Into my emptied-out soul, I feel you pour the promise of forgiveness and redemption. Slowly, with each strain of music, with each word of poetry and prayer, the hole in my heart begins to fill. Like the clouds breaking, like shafts of sunlight through the forest trees, brightness and light and color begin to fill my spirit. From my most broken moment of the year, we walk together into the most pure and hopeful promises of forgiveness, health, prosperity, friendship, love, community, blessing and peace. I hold those promises in my spirit made fragile from all that has come from the past 24 hours, from the emotional deluge of Yizkor, and my vulnerable soul begins to strengthen again. Before the open ark, with all of us standing for joy and hope, I pour forth my newly strengthens spirit in a final tekiah gedolah, my soul refreshed and ready for the year to come.

Thank you for all of your blessings and all of your support and the beauty and sorrow and trust and spirit and promise of our holy days together.

Love and Blessings,
Your Rabbi

About the Author
Rabbi Howard Goldsmith is the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester, a Reform synagogue in Rye, New York. He is the President of the Westchester Board of Rabbis and a chaplain for the Westchester County Police Department.
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