Yizkor Pesach Sh’mini
by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, April 6, 2018
We are in the final day of Passover and this year’s sederim are now added to our memory banks. The annual sharing of the four cups of wine, the four questions, the four promises for redemption, and the four sons…(May the “fours” be with us!) Of the four sons, the Rasha, sometimes interpreted as the wicked son, asks a question that is neither evil nor smug, but very important. “What,” he asks, “what does this service mean to you?”
And this Shabbat, as we begin Shmini Pesach, the 8th day of Pesach, when it is traditional to recite Yizkor, let me suggest that you ask yourself the same question: “What does the Yizkor service mean to me?!” If you grew up with the tradition of reciting Yizkor at shul four times a year, maybe the question isn’t necessary; you already know that it’s an important ritual of Jewish life, that it’s more than repeating certain prayers, more than making a donation in memory of our loved ones, and, truthfully, more than me asking you to dip into your memory bank in order to evoke emotional recollections. Yizkor is totally about what the service means to each of us. More than the fact that our loved ones have passed away, we remember certain moments, random times, perhaps long-forgotten experiences we shared with them. And these moments don’t have to be front-page worthy. Frankly, they’re probably the least dramatic moments, the most simple, perhaps mundane experiences that we may recall at this time.
There is a certain irony that this Chag HeAviv, this springtime holiday, this time of renewal and rebirth is also a time to think of those who have completed their time on earth.
Allowing myself to just pick a random memory, I recall an incident when I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old. It was late in the afternoon and I was furious with my mother (I can’t recall why), but we must have had a doozy of an argument, because I decided it was enough to run away from home. So, drawing on what I’d read in my precious chapter books, I spread out on my bed a neckerchief (like any good hobo would do) and pack my clothes in it. Of course I quickly realized that I had more belongings than would fit in a scarf, and I didn’t have a commensurate stick with which to dramatically carry the balled up clothing, so I left the mess on my bed and stomped out of my room, saying “Good-bye forever!” to my mother, marching past my two brothers, who were clearly not impressed with my histrionics, and saying “Hello and Goodbye” to my bewildered father who was coming home from work, just as I passed him on the porch. I was angry, really angry, and I headed down the street towards…well, towards, anywhere. And within a very few minutes, I realized that one, it was getting dark, two I didn’t have any money, and three, it was scarier running away from home than I anticipated. Soon a car pulled up, and I heard my father’s voice, asking if I needed anything for my trip. Petulantly, I replied that I would be just fine, probably find a job, maybe solving mysteries like Nancy Drew, or make my way through life like Tom Sawyer. He didn’t argue with me, but kept driving slowly, as I turned the corner from Beechwood to Euclid Heights Boulevard. I passed my elementary school and thought how I’d really miss my friends at Boulevard, but I was determined to run away from home, although I was having trouble remembering just why I was so upset with my mother. The street lights flickered on and the shadows they evoked were beginning to scare me. No one was out except me and my dad, still driving slowly nearby. And then, he said: “I’m hungry; I sure could go for a vanilla malt at the drug store. Do you think,” he asked, “Do you think you might have time to join me for a malt before you leave town forever?”
I remember getting in the car; I remember going to the drug store, twirling on the counter stools while the vanilla malts were being made, and I remember feeling soooooo glad that my daddy had come along just when he did. And I remember how sweet it felt to have my mom tuck me into my bed that night. To this day, by the way, I still love vanilla malts…
That memory is, incredibly, seventy years old, and my dad passed away almost 55 years ago, my mom a good 25 years ago. Who knows why I remembered that particular experience, but knowing that my dad, tired as he was from a long day at work, rescued me from…well, from my 8 year-old-self is clearly something that I will forever remember.
What does this Yizkor service mean to us? It is remembering…and it doesn’t matter what the memories are. It doesn’t have to be limited to a particular place or time. Its uniqueness happens because whatever we remember reestablishes a connection with our past and with our loved ones, whom we miss so very much at this time and whose lives we now recall because of the impact that had on our lives. This moment of Yizkor allows us to go to another place, as we imagine ourselves sitting with our loved ones, enjoying their presence and their company once again and knowing that these feelings are always available to us, whether here at shul, or at the seder, debating the merits of the four sons, or just sitting at Baskin-Robbins sipping a vanilla malt. Yizkor is all about memories—good, sad, happy, or bittersweet. These memories, our life experiences, and the influence of our loved ones, all serve to define us and to tell us who we are.
We need to hold on to those feelings and not erase them from our memories, because they are an important part of who we are. Yizkor is recognizing that we still have our loved ones right here with us, and that we still gain strength from them.
Here in this sanctuary, on this day, we imagine that those we miss are still with us, still sitting next to us, and then staying with us, even when we leave here.
And when the wicked child, or any child, or any person, for that matter, asks us why do we say Yizkor, just tell them that it enables us to go back in time, back in our hearts and our minds to our childhoods or to other places in our past, so that we can remember them, and so that they that they can continue to inspire us even from the grave.
Tell them that we say Yizkor because our loved ones are still very much with us today and what they taught us is still very much alive in us.
Tell them that we say Yizkor because what they taught us, is still so very much alive in us.
May the souls of all those whom we remember today be remembered for a blessing and may we be privileged to keep their memories alive for many years to come.
Thay nishmotayhem tzerurot b’tzror hachayim. May their souls be bond up in the bond of life. Amen