Monday, April 25, 2011

Yizkor Reflections

Since today is the last day of Passover (for Reform Jews), this morning, we will be having services. At these services, we will include the Yizkor, or memorial prayers. At the Yizkor service, we remember loved ones who have died. If you think about it, the concept of remembering loved ones during a festival is a bit strange. After all, holidays are supposed to be joyous. Why should we focus on something so sad at such a happy time?

The answer, of course, is that joy and sorrow and intertwined.

There's something about celebrating a holiday that makes us acutely aware of both joy and sorrow. Pesach, in particular, is filled with this duality. No other Jewish holiday is so universally celebrated. The experience of sitting around a seder table with loved ones and friends, telling our story that is both old and new, singing familiar songs, laughing at the same jokes – year after year gives us a sense of continuity and comfort. But there is also the awareness, as each year progresses, of beloved family and friends who once graced our table but who are no longer with us. When a loved one dies or becomes incapacitated, holidays, in particular, can be very difficult. The empty seats around our tables remind us of both the fragility of life and the need to hold on to each precious moment that we can share with others.

But loss is not only confined to death. My family started a tradition in Albuquerque of writing the names in one of our haggadot of every person who attended a seder at our home. Each year, as we open that particular haggadah, we see these names and remember who shared the holiday with us. This year, I must confess, was somewhat strange. Although we had a wonderful seder with many new friends and some family, it was different. The people with whom we had shared pesach for 14 years – whose names were written in our haggadah – while still life-long friends - no longer were our neighbors. They weren't at our seder. We know that we will soon begin new traditions here – and we have made wonderful new friends - and yet, it will never be exactly the same. With every new beginning there is always an ending. In addition, since we are still in the process of unpacking the myriads of boxes that are part of any new home, we couldn't find our own haggadot and had to borrow some from the Temple. As such, we didn't have the record of those previous seder guests written on the pages of the "memory" haggadah.

Even though the text of our borrowed Haggadot was exactly the same as our own, it still didn't feel complete. Our Haggadot had our wine stains and matzah crumbs from previous years. The books that we had always used had been held by loved ones whose presence then filled our hearts with joy and whose absence now reminded us of what once was and can never be again.

For me, personally, Pesach brings another tinge of sadness. Each time I lead a seder I think about my father. I remember how he used to lead the seder with energy and enthusiasm. He would sing at the top of his lungs and we loved to be around him. My father now is facing the end of his life in a nursing home – strangled by the fog of Alzheimers. Most of the time he sleeps or stares into the distance. But occasionally, he finds some spark of memory – oftentimes when hearing a song – oftentimes a song from the seder. The last time I saw him, I brought my guitar and sang to him – when he heard "Dayenu" he suddenly perked up and started singing along with me. Then we moved to "Echad Mi Yodea" – he knew every word….

Joy and Sorrow, laughter and tears – that is the essence of Pesach. Truly, that is also what it means to live life fully. When we embrace all that life has to offer; when we take the risk of loving another person, we know that, at some time in the future, that love may bring us to grief when we have to say goodbye. Grief and love are intertwined.

And so, we come back to Yizkor. By remembering those whom we have lost- even at our time of greatest rejoicing – ultimately, we are reaffirming the holiness of our lives, our relationships and our love.

Chag Sameach


  1. Joe, this was lovely and tenderly written. I'm pleased to read the gentility of the value of Yizkor, not a tradition with which I was raised, but have come to relish.
    I reminisced this morning thumbing through a special cookbook assembled by a cousin of our grandmother's recipes to find passover pancakes. Artifacts are important memory receptors but the collective voices raised at Yizkor are wonderful tributes.
    Another Dayenu stanza that one day you will write!
    Chag Sameach!

  2. Shalom Rav,

    Gut Gezogt Rabbi Joe! And thank you for allowing us a look into your personal God wrestling and attempts at meaning making re your dad's debilitating disease.

    Tih'yeh Bari,


  3. hey there! long time no speak...but i had to write in and tell you how much i love this post. we too have always written in the year and names of those attending our seders...and though i love the new, cool haggadot that have come out with wonderful readings and additions, I am still partial to our old ones bec they carry the names of people who are no longer physically at our table. I can picture each one of them doing something specific at our seders and that is as much a part of passover to me as matzah. B'chol dor v'dor....
    with love,
    pam barkley

  4. Jordan and PAm, Todah Rabbah. I appreciate the read and the write.