What Yizkor Means to Me

I remember some years ago I would often recommend at Yizkor that people take a moment during my speech to close their eyes and just think about their loved one. There was one member who took exception. He told me then how he had lost his father twenty years prior and how not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his father. From my current vantage point I get that. I really do. And I’m barely two months in.

Some people have said to me, “time is a healer.” I suggest whoever coined that phrase probably had too much time on his or her hands. I’m sure time takes the sting out of the initial pain – but there is something so overwhelmingly final when losing a loved one – something that leaves an indelible wound – a gaping hole which, even if with time, the hole gets filled – the scar remains – an eternal reminder of what you lost and can’t get back. Or as someone put it to me: At the outset it feels like gaping into a hole, right in the middle of your living room. You never get over it. With time you simply learn to walk around it.

When you consider how loved ones are essentially pieces of a puzzle – all different parts of one big inter-connected soul – well we all know the feeling when there’s a piece of the puzzle missing. Every morning you wake up and you look at it. Every night you go to sleep and you look at it. And that gaping bit from that missing piece is staring you in the face. I imagine over time you get used to it – you accept it – but you never get over it.

One thought that has consumed my mind over these past weeks is that my siblings and I – we effectively shared our father with many people around the world. Of course that makes me proud but it also fills me with a sense of regret, wondering whether I appreciated him enough in my life – whether I took enough advantage to drink from the well from which many were nourished though was always there, readily available at my own feet.

Yizkor is there to remind us that our parents, our spouses, our children – our loved ones are there for us as reservoirs of love to drink from and with which to nourish our souls. We’re not supposed to fall out with them – we’re not supposed to become estranged from them. We’re supposed to drink their tenderness and lap up their sweet caresses on our hearts.

I don’t know – maybe it’s a man thing that fathers and sons don’t typically say “I love you” in the same way that mothers might do. Or maybe it’s just me. I can honestly say, I probably told my father “I love you” in the last week I was with him more times than in the past forty-eight years. It’s true – it doesn’t always have to be said – it can be expressed in numerous other ways – but if there is one thing that Yizkor focuses our minds on it is the value of our relationships and the need to say or show that love to our nearest and dearest at every given opportunity. Because alas there comes a point, sometimes when we least expect it – when the opportunity is no longer there – when we are no longer able to whisper sweet nothings, share an embrace, say ‘I love you.’

Each year since the day I was born, at the onset of Yom Kippur my father would put his warm hand on my head and bless me with the special priestly benediction – what we call birchas habonim – the children’s blessing. And when there was a geographical divide, still there would be that moment, just prior to leaving to Shul for Kol Nidrei when I would call him, and he would recite the blessing over the phone. And this year – this year – for the first time in my 48 years – I didn’t have that experience – and I missed it – and it hurt – and my heart ached.

But fundamental to Jewish belief is that bichayehem ubimoisom loi nifradu – in their passing, just as in their life, they do not become separated. So sometimes I will take a little walk at night, and I will look up to the heavens, and I will have a conversation as no doubt many of you might do. I couldn’t do that previously. Before it would involve picking up a phone at the right time. Now – it’s any time – any place, because even as we may not see our loved ones, they are certainly watching over us. Even as we may not hear them, they are undoubtedly attuned to our words, our tears, whether of sadness or joy. Even as we may no longer be able to hold them, they certainly reach out and hold us in their ethereal embrace. And I know in my heart of hearts that this year, like every year before, just prior to Kol Nidrei, my father OBM will have blessed me.

That’s what Yizkor is all about. It is a unique moment of transcendence in time when we bridge the gap between heaven and earth – when that sense of closeness is that much more compelling – when if only we want to we can truly feel the warmth of our loved ones lovingly embracing our souls. And they are certainly blessing us – each of us just as they will have done all that time before.

A little girl had been shopping with her Mom in Asda. She must have been 6 years old, this beautiful red haired, freckle faced image of innocence. It was pouring outside. The kind of rain that gushes over the top of rain gutters, so much in a hurry to hit the earth it has no time to flow down the spout. Everyone just stood there, under the awning, just inside the door of the store. They waited, some patiently, others irritated because nature messed up their hurried day. Rainfall has this mesmerizing effect. You can get lost in the sound and sight of the heavens washing away the dirt and dust of the world. Memories of running, splashing so carefree as a child come pouring in as a welcome reprieve from the worries of the day.

One woman standing there overheard the sweet voice of the young girl as it broke the hypnotic trance everyone was caught in: “Mom let’s run through the rain,” she said. “What?” Mom asked. “Let’s run through the rain!” she repeated. “No honey. We’ll wait until it slows down a bit,” Mom replied. This young child waited a minute and repeated: “Mom, let’s run through the rain…” “We’ll get soaked if we do,” Mom said. “No, we won’t, Mom. That’s not what you said this morning,” the young girl said as she tugged at her Mom’s arm. “This morning? When did I say we could run through the rain and not get wet?” “Don’t you remember? When you were talking to Daddy about his cancer, you said, ‘If G-d can get us through this, He can get us through anything!”
The entire crowd stopped dead silent. You couldn’t hear anything but the rain. Everyone stood silently. No one left. Mom paused and thought for a moment about what she would say. Now some would laugh it off and scold her for being silly. Some might even ignore what was said. But this was a moment of affirmation in a young child’s life; a time when innocent trust can be nurtured so that it will bloom into faith.

“Honey, you are absolutely right. Let’s run through the rain. If G-d lets us get wet, well maybe we just need washing,” Mom said. Then off they ran. The woman recalled: “We all stood watching, smiling and laughing as they darted past the cars and yes, through the puddles. They got soaked. They were followed by a few who screamed and laughed like children all the way to their cars. And yes, I did. I ran. I got wet. I needed washing.”

Have you ever wondered why our bodies shed water – tears – when we are sad? Tears are our earliest forms of communication. Before babies can speak, they can cry. The only way for infants to express frustration, pain, fear, or need is to cry. Different languages can provide barriers to spoken communication, but emotions and the tears that accompany them are universal. The rain falls because the cloud can no longer handle the weight. The tears fall because the heart can no longer handle the pain. Scientifically it is proven that the tears shed when crying are distinctly different to those shed when say slicing an onion. There are higher levels of stress hormones being released when crying which is why one tends to feel a little better after a good cry. Those tears provide the washing of our soul.

Jews around the world assemble for Yizkor today. It is a universal language expressed from the depths of our hearts. It is a moment of rain – of tears – of relieving the pain in our hearts and washing the anguish and sorrow from our souls in the realization that we can always connect to our loved ones whose bodies may sleep but whose souls remain eternally aware and bound with us as one.

I found myself wondering more than ever as to the significance of the Kaddish prayer. Yisgadal V’yiskadash Shimay Raba – “Exalted and sanctified be His great Name.” It’s a powerful prayer – its words are rich with meaning, depth and spiritual significance. But what has it to do with a loved one? If I’m taking out several moments throughout each day to connect with my beloved father through prayer, why do I make no reference to him – maybe something like a mini-Yizkor prayer instead? Why the Kaddish in which I exalt G-d but make no reference to man?

The point however is when a human being dies, a piece of G-d ‘dies’ together with him, figuratively speaking. Man was created in the image of G-d and the fate of man is ultimately the fate of G-d himself. Every human life is a Divine piece of art and has infinite and eternal value. In reciting the Kaddish we attempt to rebuild not only shattered souls, but also to rebuild a shattered and devastated G-d.

Kaddish emphasizes the enormity of the loss – Yizkor accentuates the greatness of the connection. Kaddish is the rain, the tears that fall. Yizkor is the washing – the cleansing of the heart and soul. “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven,” said the wisest of men. We must always ensure to take time to run through the rain because even as circumstances can take away your material possessions, your money, your health G-d forbid, no one and nothing can ever take away your precious memories…Don’t forget to make time and take the opportunities to make memories every day.

When I stood there watching my father’s coffin being lowered into the ground – and that chilling sound of the earth hitting against wood, I thought and I felt as though a part of me had passed on with him. But by the time the grave was filled an altogether different realization dawned on me. A part of me doesn’t lie buried with my father. A part of him continues to live on in me.
Yizkor is all about realizing that the cessation of life is only as we perceive it on this earth. But we can continue to give nachas to our loved ones even as they may no longer be in our physical midst. It really never is too late. We can always reciprocate the love through the mitzvois that we undertake – the extra good that we commit to right here, right now, in their merit. Sometimes maybe we feel guilty about missed opportunities – chances gone. Yizkor drives home the fact that there are no lost moments. We can still do something – we can still give nachas – the relationship endures.

The very last words I said to my father before I had left back to the UK, was that my oldest son got his smicha – that there was another Rabbi Schochet in the family. I said it once and I said it twice and it didn’t seem to register. Then I said it a third time and my father gave me this smile that will remain with me forever and in barely audible words he said, Boruch Hashem “With thanks to G-d.” Yizkor is all about passing the baton to the next generation. We remember those who walked before us in order to pass on the legacy to those who come after us. That’s the ultimate nachas. At the gravesite of loved ones we place a tombstone and we put an inscription. But the real tombstone is the loved ones who live on and the inscription changes all the time. It is up to us, the changes we make in our lives and the impression we leave on the next generation as to what that inscription will say.

There was a great Rabbi of the last century – Yisroel Zev Gustman. His meteoric rise from child prodigy to the exalted position of judge in the Chief Rabbinical Court of Vilna at around the age of 20 was the stuff of legend – but nonetheless fact. While a long productive career on the outskirts of Vilna could have been anticipated, Jewish life in and around Vilna was obliterated by the pain and fear of World War II. Rabbi Gustman escaped, though not unscathed. He hid among corpses. He hid in caves. He hid in a pig pen. He somehow survived.

First in America then later settling in Israel he founded a small Yeshiva. One of the regular participants at his Talmudic lectures was a professor at the Hebrew University, Robert J. Aumann. The year was 1982. Israel was at war. Soldiers were mobilized, reserve units activated. Among those called to duty was a reserves officer, a university student who made his living as a high school teacher: Shlomo Aumann, the son of Prof. Robert Aumann. On the eve of the 19th of Sivan in particularly fierce combat, Shlomo fell in battle.

Shlomo was married and had one child. His widow, Shlomit, gave birth to their second daughter shortly after her father – who she would never know – was killed. The family had just returned from the cemetery and would now begin the week of shiva – mourning for their son, brother, husband and father. Rabbi Gustman went to the funeral, then to the cemetery, and from there went straight to the home of the broken family for a shiva visit. He entered and asked to sit next to the father, Professor Aumann. The father said, “Rabbi, I so appreciate your coming to visit but you have spent all day with our family, feel free to go back to the Yeshiva. I am sure the students are waiting for you.”

Rav Gustman spoke, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew, so that all those assembled would understand: “I am sure that you don’t know this, but I also once had a son. His name was Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms by the Germans and murdered. I escaped. I later bartered my child’s shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food; I gave it away to others… My Meir is a kadosh, he is holy; he and all the six million who perished are holy.”

Rav Gustman then added: “I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth in Heaven. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is saying to him ‘I died because I am a Jew; but I was a mere child. I couldn’t do anything for anyone else. But you Shlomo, you died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.’ My Meir,” said Rabbi Gustman, “is a kadosh, he is holy – but your Shlomo is a Shaliach Zibbur – a Cantor in that holy, heavenly minyan.” Rabbi Gustman continued: “I never had the opportunity to sit shiva for my Meir; let me sit here with you just a little longer…”

42 years after the death of his son, Rabbi Gustman sat shiva together with the Aumann family…Professor Aumann listened to the story. And then he said silently: “I thought I could never be comforted, but Rebbi, you have comforted me.”

This story demonstrates the compelling connections between past and present; the connections which transpire up above and those which take place down below – and perhaps most of all the connections between the above & below – between this world & the next. We never walk alone because our loved ones are still with us. Death can only take away the physical persona, but the soul lives on. Even after their passing, our loved ones are with us in spirit. They strengthen us when we face challenges, and they smile with us when we celebrate. While we can no longer see them, we can sense their presence. None of this denies the pain & sorrow of death. But there is comfort in knowing that we are never really apart and that’s what this moment of Yizkor is all about.
A bereaved husband feeling his loss keenly thought distraction would be good by travelling abroad. Before his departure, however he left orders for a tombstone with the inscription: “The light of my life has gone out.” During his lengthy time abroad he found love again & before his return he had taken another wife. Before returning he suddenly remembered the tombstone and the inscription. His new wife might be offended. He quickly contacted the stonemason. I am returning home but my circumstances have changed. I need you to use your years of experience & ingenuity to come up with a better inscription. Upon his return he took his new wife to see the tombstone & found that the inscription had been made to read: “The light of my life has gone out; but I have struck another match.”

This is the essence of Yizkor. With the departure of our dearly departed a light in our lives has gone out. But today – we strike another match as we kindle a new spark within our soul, in anticipation of giving nachas to our loved ones that were; in awareness of the deeper connections that are; and in the hope of being a light, an inspiration by passing the baton of Jewish life and tradition unto the next generation that will be. May the souls of our dearly departed be bound in the bond of eternal life – and may we live on in good health to inspire those who came before us and those who will walk after us, v’hokitzu v’ranenu shoichnai afar – until that day when those who sleep with rise up and dance once more.