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Why Do We Recite Yizkor on Yom Tov?

Why do we recite Yizkor on Yom Tov?  On the last day of Pesach, we recite Yizkor to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, but I often wondered why were the holidays selected as days to recite Yizkor.  I am aware that Rabbenu Simcha, one of the famed students of Rashi who wrote Machzor Vitry, wrote that the custom of reciting Yizkor is connected to collecting charity on the last days of Yom Tov because the Torah reading on those days has a line about giving charity, but isn’t the recitation of Yizkor inconsistent with the happiness of the holiday?  If, God forbid, someone loses a relative and the relative is buried a day prior to the holiday, the mourner gets up from shiva at the onset of Yom Tov because Yom Tov cannot coexist with sadness.  The Yizkor prayer also evokes sadness which seems inconsistent with the happiness of the holiday.  Why, then, do we recite Yizkor on Yom Tov?

A number of years ago, David Brooks wrote an article in the New York Times about suffering and he explained that we live in a culture that loves to talk about happiness.  In fact, in one three-month period, more than 1,000 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.  He provided the example of Franklin Roosevelt who returned deeper and more empathetic 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.

Perhaps this is how we can understand reciting Yizkor on Yom Tov.  Yom Tov is all about joy and happiness and that is why we cannot mourn on Yom Tov.  However, what is true happiness?  After we spend an entire Yom Tov engaged in unadulterated happiness, we engage in “atzeret.”  The Torah refers to the last day of Pesach as a day of “atzeret,” literally meaning “gather.”  It is a day to gather all the lessons of the holiday and reflect upon how the holiday has changed us and perhaps to reflect upon the happiness of the holiday.  After engaging in a complete week of unadulterated joy and forgetting about our sorrows, perhaps now it is time to place our current happiness in the context of our sorrows and the suffering that we can never have another Pesach seder with a mother or a father who has passed away, or perhaps we can no longer take a Chol Hamoed trip with a spouse who has passed away.

We try to forget, and we are supposed to forget for most of this holiday of happiness about the sadness of not being able to celebrate the holiday with those who are no longer with us.  However, before we leave this holiday, we must reflect.  This reflection, which is the recitation of Yizkor, can be extremely ennobling and it can be 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 passage reminds me of something that Rav Soloveitchik has said, that when we think about suffering, the question is not why but for what purpose did we suffer, or how will we respond to the suffering.  Additionally, David Brooks 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 celebrating with God for an entire week and then reflecting how to incorporate our present reality into a life of holiness.

Simply put, for example, when I think about my mother and my father during this coming Yizkor and the tremendous loss that we will not celebrate family life events or holidays together, my hope is that I will utilize that thought to dig deeper inside myself and redeem that loss by realizing how much they cared about our tradition and transmitting that tradition to their children, how much they cared about holidays and how much they cared about family harmony and shalom bayit.  Hopefully my response is to care more about continuing their legacy of tradition, inspiring holidays and working to constantly increase shalom bayit.  My blessing to all of us who are reciting Yizkor this holiday is to utilize our feelings of loss, of 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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