Yizkor in a whole new way--or maybe not

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel

April 16, 2020


Perhaps 97% of Israeli Jews and more than 70% of American Jews have a Seder. While some may be more or less traditional, they come together with family and friends. They eat matzah. They dip vegetables. They taste a bitter herb. They tell some version of the Exodus story. At least that is what normally happens.

This year may have been different, but I am not convinced that it was ALL that different. Yes, our seders were physically smaller, but for so many, they were spiritually larger! Suddenly, the journey from slavery to freedom felt incredibly relevant. Suddenly, we all could taste the bitter tears and wonder with Dayenu, what would really be enough. Having the privilege of speaking to so many within our congregation in recent weeks, I heard about people younger and older using technology to connect. As we are doing right now, we had to make hard decisions about how best to observe our traditions AND connect to one another. Using the guidance of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, we found ways of reaching out. Our daily minyan on ZOOM has been vibrant. I heard of so many ZOOM seders and now we are using Facebook to bring our sanctuary into your home. None of these are sentences I could have imagined any other year.

While at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a class with Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, no relation other than the last name. Rabbi Weintraub has for many years run a Jewish healing center through NYC’s Jewish Family Services. He has helped provide and organize counseling services, addiction support and grief groups. One that he shared with our class was called “the empty chair”. For many, the Seder is the first time that the family would all be together in a long while. If a loved one had passed, it might be the first time there was a missing place setting. Passover could be a time of great joy, of bringing people together, but it could also be a time of sorrow, of grief, of loss.

This year that grief has been compounded. All of us had empty chairs--even as we thought of the living who could not be with us. The tools that so often have divided us, that have allowed such division and anger in our dialogues have suddenly been turned on their heads. Suddenly these tools are vital to build connection, to pray together, to speak together and for some--even to date! While we have unfortunately heard of acts of vandalism in synagogue online meetings, we have seen how Jews across the country have connected. From Ramah, to CBI, Federation, United Synagogue, the Rabbinical Assembly, so many organizations are working to support us all in these challenging times.

This year as we shared Pesach with our family, I thought of sedarim of past years. I imagined our house filled with family and friends. Even as I could see those I loved, I mourned the loss of their physical presence. As beautiful as hugging our hearts is, physical affection and physical presence are powerful.

Reading the Haftorah for today, I was comforted. I saw that we have been in isolation before. We have been in times of loss before. We have been in times of pain before.

Pesah Day 8

This translation was taken from the JPS Tanakh
ISAIAH 10:32 - 12:6

Chapter 11
1 But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse,
A twig shall sprout from his stock.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him:
A spirit of wisdom and insight,
A spirit of counsel and valor,
A spirit of devotion and reverence for the Lord.
3 He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Lord:
He shall not judge by what his eyes behold,
Nor decide by what his ears perceive.
4 Thus he shall judge the poor with equity
And decide with justice for the lowly of the land.
He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth
And slay the wicked with the breath of his lips.
5 Justice shall be the girdle of his loins,
And faithfulness the girdle of his waist.
6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard lie down with the kid;
The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,
With a little boy to herd them. . .

11 In that day, My Lord will apply His hand again to redeeming the other part of His people from Assyria — as also from Egypt, Pathros, Nubia, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and the coastlands.

As I read these words, I am not only looking to the time of the Messianic Age, or of perfect redemption. I am thinking of the days ahead. We will not be quarantined forever. We will be reunited with our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our children, our friends. When we do, those connections will be even more vital to us. We will have seen the challenge of the physical distance, and work to overcome it.

At the same time, I must acknowledge the great blessing of these times. I have connected with colleagues and friends across the country and around the world. If the next block is as far away as Israel, then Israel is in our backyard! We ARE able to talk, to pray, to see, to sing, and to dance together. Not in the same ways, but in special ways, nonetheless.

Yesterday, I shared how without the Jewish holidays and rhythm, I would not know what day it was. Time is fuzzy right now. Yet there is a great blessing in that fluidity. Memories of the past are suddenly more present. Hopes for the future are alive and well. I say with 100% certainty, albeit without a timeline, this pandemic will pass. We will return to our sanctuaries, to our grocery stores, to our vacations and to “normal life.” Yet we will remain touched by this experience. May we see the blessings of these moments, the time when we felt comfortable reaching out to those we had not spoken to in years. May we bring the spirit of kindness, compassion and good will to all our days going forward. As we turn now to Yizkor, bringing our loved ones again into our lives, may we use their spirit of lovingkindness in the days and weeks to come.