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Yizkor- Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something of You

At a Jewish wedding, we greet everyone, from the bride and groom to the C list guest with the greeting, “Mazal tov!” So today, in addition to Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach, and Gut Yuntif, today, Shavuot, our wedding day to torah and to God, I greet all of you with a heartfelt “Mazal tov!” 

There’s a rhyme you may have heard from the wedding day, that brides should wear (or carry) “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” It’s actually a great guide for most of our traditions to maintain meaning over time. Most of our rituals have elements of old, new, borrowed and, well, blue…

Something old: 

The roots of Yizkor are found in the Midrash Tanchuma of the 8th or 9th century. In its section on parashat Ha’azinu, Moses’ swan song, it cites Deuteronomy 21:8, “Atone for Your people, Israel, whom You have redeemed.” We are told that the first part of the verse refers to the living of Israel, while the second part refers to the deceased. The Midrash continues, “Therefore, our practice is to remember the deceased on Yom Kippur by pledging charity on their behalf.” We are then told not to think that charity no longer helps the departed. Rather, when one pledges charity on the deceased’s behalf, he ascends as quickly as an arrow shot from a bow.

Yizkor was extended from Yom Kippur alone to the three Festivals, which is thematically appropriate. The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 16:16-17) that when we make our pilgrimage to the Temple for the holidays, we are not to appear empty-handed. Each person was to make a donation according to his ability. We see from this that charity is also an integral part of the Festivals and therefore a fitting occasion for Yizkor with its emphasis on charity as a merit for the departed.

Yizkor extended beyond this idea of offering tzedaka when it added a commemoration for the Jewish martyrs slain during the First and Second Crusades.  A special prayer, Av HaRahamim (Ancestor of Mercies), probably composed as a eulogy for communities destroyed in the Crusades of 1096, is often still recited by the congregation as a memorial for all Jewish martyrs.

Something blue– this wedding tradition originated as a way to ward off the evil eye. We have that in our Yizkor service as well, as a powerful superstition pervades the community: If your parents were alive, you didn’t stay for Yizkor. God forbid, you should tempt the ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, by hearing and seeing others mourn for their departed. This came into play primarily for the section of the yizkor prayers in which individuals read silently recalling the deceased. There are paragraphs for a father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, other relatives and friends, and Jewish martyrs. During the service, each person reads the appropriate paragraph(s). 

While the custom of leaving yizkor still exists today, the rabbis remind us that there are prayers at the end that are recited for victims of the Holocaust and other martyrs; for members of our community;  these apply to all members of the congregation, not just to those who have lost close family members. Some would advise staying inside in order to recite those prayers, or to go out and return for them. Something blue- we’ll come back to this. 

Something borrowed:

The custom of commemorating martyrs by reciting their names and praying for their repose was borrowed directly from the Christian Church. From the 4th century onwards it was the practice of the Church, during the celebration of the Mass, to offer a special prayer for local martyrs and deceased dignitaries, their names being read out from a diptych—that is, from two wooden boards folded together like the pages of a book. 

Something new, or as I’d like to call it, something of you:

Yizkor is a very personal experience. Without you, it doesn’t exist.

As in the book May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism—Yizkor,Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand writes:

Judaism also embraces the idea of collective memory…The assertion that we all stood during the revelation at Sinai is a profound statement that all Jews are bound together in a shared autobiographical experience.

This focus on communal memory makes the Yizkor ceremony all the more striking, for Yizkor is the one moment in the Jewish liturgical calendar when what matters is not communal but individual memory, each of us standing personally consumed by singular memories of relatives and friends who have died. Unlike a funeral or shiva, where individual memories are shared publicly to fashion a collective mosaic of the person being remembered, Yizkor provides a communal space for inward memorializing. Why is it that Judaism, a religion so fully dedicated to communal memory, makes this regular exception when it comes to Yizkor?

Yizkor works differently. It is not intended as a time to sharpen our memories, for there is no corrective of physical evidence or balance provided by others’ recollections. Instead, Yizkor encourages an evolution of our own private ongoing relationship. Each time we recite Yizkor and remember, we deepen the parts of that relationship that sustain us, while forgetting those characteristics that do not.

Instead, Yizkor encourages an evolution of our own private ongoing relationship. Each time we recite Yizkor and remember, we deepen the parts of that relationship that sustain us, while forgetting those characteristics that do not.

We all have the capacity to, and responsibility to remember. 

 Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 1:3, teaches “Our children shall be our guarantors.”

 According to the Midrash, when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem asked for a guarantee that they would keep it. They replied, “Avoteinu orvim otanu” — “Our ancestors will be our guarantors.” When this was unacceptable, they offered, “Nevi’einu areivin lanu” — “Our prophets will be our guarantors.” This, too, Hashem did not accept. When they said “Baneinu orvim otanu” — “Our children will be our guarantors” — Hashem replied, “Indeed these are good guarantors. For their sake I will give it to you!

We are the guarantors – in continuing our collective tradition, and in perpetuating our own individual memories of those who impacted us. 

It’s been a little over 3 years since Rose Goldberg z’l passed away. In addition to seeing Rose on a regular basis on Shabbat morning, I’d often see her at the funerals of friends and community members. Knowing that most of our funerals take place in the heat of the day, I’d often go over to Rose to offer a bottle of water after the service had concluded. She’d often decline the offer, but ask that we walk around to the graves of her loved ones to offer an el malei rachamim, memorial prayer. We would stop a number of times en route to the Zucker/Goldberg/Mibab section of our cemetery. “Let’s do an el malei for this person- they were a teacher”, “let’s do an el malei for this person, our clergy or ritual director” let’s do an el malei for this person, they were a mensch.” No family relation, but a 90 yr old woman, on a hot summer’s day, understood that even those not related in blood have a relationship with us, long after they are gone. 

I have two living parents, a living spouse, a living sibling and living children. Yet when I recite Yizkor, I remember a lot of people. I think of blood relatives – grandparents that I knew, grandparents I didn’t know so well, a grandparent I never knew…family members taken too soon. But I also take a moment to capture images of people who sat in these pews, regulars, the Rose Goldbergs, teachers and mentors of mine, and students of mine, who are no longer here, physically. Even as the sanctuary doesn’t appear to be filled, the seats fill up as if all of those I recall are sitting here, right with us. 

Biblical Historian Theodor Gaster wrote back in 1953:

To this time-honored idea the Jewish Yizkor service gives a new and arresting turn: by the very act of remembrance, oblivion and the limitations of the present are defied, death is made irrelevant, and a plane is established on which the dead do indeed meet and mingle with the living. The ceremony is transformed from a memorial of death into an affirmation of life.

Time stands still. And in that moment of silence are the sounds and sights of memory. From generations before us, an unending chain that affirms the impact of those we knew in life just as we know they continue to guide us after life. To those we remember today- may their memory and our memory of them, always serve as a blessing. 

Parashat Vaera

Exodus 7:16 states, “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me”, The verse inspired the African American spiritual “Go Down Moses” first published in 1862.  In solemn testimony to that unbroken faith that links Jaguar fan one to another, I have taken poetic license in recreating a never before heard final voice.

When Jaguars were in Peyton’s land: Let the ball go,
Depressed they couldnt pull a goal line stand, Let the ball go.

Go down, Jones Drew,
Way down in ownerland,
Tell old Duval,
Let Del-Rio go.

Monday Morning Quarterback

This week we began the book of Shemot, the book of Exodus.  Simultaneously, members of the Jacksonville community are praying for a release from the years of AFC South slavery to the freedom that comes with a division crown.

As we already begin thinking of next weeks football matchups, there are new possible Exodus stories.  One seems much more far-fetched (my favorite Yiddish word), but for Jags fans, I hope its the story told to later generations.

The Israelites left Egypt by foot, not by magic carpet ride.  It’s the ground game that got them out of futility.  Who can be that leader of the ground force? Why Moshe of course! You may know him as Maurice  Jones- Jew.

The Exodus narrative includes another set of players who helped us overcome Pharaoh (Peyton).  This year, the story would not be the same without an Oakland Raider team that can play spoiler by way of locusts, wild beasts, and a sea of black.  I’m talking about their fans, their owner, their team.  Lets go Raiders!

In tandem, these two stories can lead the Jaguar faithful to a place they’ve longed for for years: a home (game).

Should but one fail, we might encounter a simpler yet sadder Exodus tale, one where a native prince returns to his home to set his team free.  Its tough to think of Rex Grossman as Moses.  Lets make sure we don’t have to think of him that way.

May it be your will, G-d and G-d of our ancestors, that we receive good touchdowns of deliverance and consolation. May you lead us from subjugation to redemption.  Amen