One of the best musicals I haven’t seen this year is Hamilton, but I have heard some of its evocative lyrics. The last song asks three questions:
Who remembers our name?
Who keeps our flame?
Who tells our story?
I couldn’t think of more pertinent questions that encapsulate the purpose of Yizkor. Yizkor means remembrance, Yizkor is about the stories of those we have lost, Yizkor is about our responsibility to keep the flame alive.
At the heart of Yizkor is a four-letter word called Loss. If there is one thing that has characterised our past 18 months of this pandemic its surely the many shades of loss. The loss of life, of health of freedom and mobility, the lost celebrations and anniversaries and simple pleasures of being with family and friends, community and congregation.
The grief of these compounded losses has only been exacerbated by the absence of the things we usually draw on to help us through: I am thinking particularly of all the strange and sometimes surreal funerals of this last year and a half. Covid has robbed us of the comfort of closeness, The consolation of saying goodbye to our departed while surrounded by family by friends and by community. That’s why we call a funeral a levaya, an accompaniment. We, the living, accompanying our deceased on their last journey. We, the living, accompanying our grieving friends on that long road from shtibel to the end of shiva and beyond…
Grief is universal and loss comes to us all. And with each loss we remember the many others that have carved themselves deep into our hearts. Shakespeare put it so beautifully and poignantly: “grief comes not as a soldier but as a battalion “. In other words, with each loss we are mourning for all our losses. And so, the losses of this pandemic may have become a river of despair and grief for many.
We have a tendency in our Western happiness addicted culture to neglect and invalidate the emotional experience of people suffering loss. We too often pathologise the natural ebb and flow of grief. There is still too much death denying in our culture and too often a conspiracy of silence around it. It has been called the last taboo. Loss is painful, it hurts, it saps our strength, it confuses our minds, it challenges our faith. It’s however only when we deny a grief and don’t let it run its natural painful course that it becomes a problem and possibly a pathology.
Judaism has long recognised this and all those laws and rituals around death and mourning are there to help us acknowledge the abrasions of reality and crevices of suffering that loss etched into our souls. Just think about how confronting our funerals are – there is no prettying up the graveside no flowers to gentle the gaping hole. Just the hard and sometimes brutal sound of earth on coffin.
One of these marvelous tools of our Tradition in helping us with grieving is this Yizkor time. We are the quintessential Yizkor people. We carry memory in out bones, remembrance is in our blood, we remember when the world forgets. Yizkor tells us it’s good to grieve, its critical to remember. And thus, each Yizkor time I remember my father Isaac and my in-laws, Zelik and Eva, my grandparents especially my beloved Zeida Barney, my family members particularly those who were killed in the Shoah. I feel the absence of friends, I see the faces of so many of your family and friends whom I got to know in my years at Caulfield Shule. Amongst a sea of vacant seats I look around at their empty seats…
Like you, I carry the burden of grief. Sometimes, as I struggle with the weight around my midriff, I think I am carrying my father’s weight, his burdens of Shoah loss, displacement and identity. These were always solidly expressed in his expanding stomach… But then, I am reminded of his goodness and his gentleness, the qualities, strengths and opportunities he gifted me and my siblings.
Grief therapist, Chris Hall, reminds us that death ends a life but not a relationship. We find ways of carrying our deceased with us in our lives as they carried us in theirs. Rabbi Steve Leder reminds us that we find ways not to be crushed by sadness for our loved ones would not wish such a weight on us. Even as we “walk through the dark shadow of the valley of death “we know that there is lightness and warmth still in the world. We walk with Light and with hope and “will not be afraid for you God are with us”.
As the people of memory, we draw on our remembrances of our past. We remember the Egyptian story and its message: To say every day -I will not remain in Egypt, I will not live as a slave numbed and dumbed by the relentless suffering all around, the unbearable anguish of Afghanistan and Yemen the Uighurs and the Rohingya. We remember Persia and Spain, the Soviet Gulag and Auschwitz, The War of independence and the Yom Kippur War .We remember not to be stuck gazing backwards but by acknowledging our losses we can look forward to the future .The Hebrew word, Yizkor is in the future tense-we will remember .We remember for the future, for we are the people of hope and the people of anticipation. We refuse to accept that humanity is essentially evil, we believe in the ultimate triumph of our essential goodness -that’s what it means to belong to a Messianic people.
We will remember the names, we will keep the flame, we will keep on telling the story…
This is a copy of my online Yizkor Speech before Yom Kippur. This speech will be part of a book entitled Living in An Upside-Down World to be published early next year and available through local bookstores; for more details contact me at email@example.com