Yizkor Yom Kippur-memory and community

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Yom Kippur Yizkor

When I was a child, like many others, Yizkor was the time to leave the sanctuary. I would join the other kids and play games or talk. Maybe even sneak into the rabbi’s office and have a snack with his children. One year though, I was asked to stay, to hold the Torah. That experience changed me. It showed me that Yizkor was not some moment of terror for those who had lost someone, but a time of consolation, of reckoning with feelings, and connecting to God and each other.

Yizkor is one tiny blessing of being a Jew. The Jewish life cycle has so many important moments, ceremonies, rituals. Taken together they show us the blessings of life. They show us that we are a community. They remind us that we are not alone. In this time, when so many are isolated due to this plague, Judaism says, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. We are all in this together. While the Yizkor prayers do not need a minyan, we close them with Kaddish--which does. Praising God’s name, we gather together spiritually or physically, acknowledging that CBI strengthens us; God strengthens us.

Yizkor is a reminder that our loved ones are with us, that they remain vital and important, even when they are no longer on this physical plane. I heard a story recently, a tale from the old country, of Yankel and Moishe who regularly fought over where the boundary of their property was. They invited their rebbe to solve the dispute. He came and listened to them. Then he put his ear to the ground and listened. The Rebbe said “the ground is laughing at you. It says that the land doesn’t belong to you, but that you belong to the land.”

From dust we were created and to dust we will return. This existence is temporary, yet amidst this brevity of this moment, we have tremendous opportunity. We have choices. We can live a life of meaning, or not. We can live a life caring for others, or not. We can find inspiration, or not. We can choose love, or not.

There is a touching story about the piety, wisdom and courage of Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir in the Talmud. It describes the death of her two beloved sons. One Sabbath while Rabbi Meir was in the Bet Midrash, sudden sickness struck their children and they passed away before anything could be done for them.

Beruriah covered them up in the bedroom and did not say a word to anyone. After nightfall Rabbi Meir returned from the House of Learning and asked for his sons. Casually, Beruriah remarked that they had gone out. She calmly prepared the Havdalah, the cup of wine, the light and the spices. She also distracted him while she prepared and served the Melaveh Malkah, the evening meal with which a Jew accompanies the departing "Sabbath Queen." Then, after Rabbi Meir had finished eating, Beruriah asked him for an answer to the following problem:

"Tell me, my husband, what shall I do? Some time ago something was left with me for safe-keeping. Now the owner has returned to claim it. Must I return it?"

"That is a very strange question indeed. How can you doubt the right of the owner to claim what belongs to him?" Rabbi Meir exclaimed in astonishment.

"Well, I did not want to return it without letting you know of it," replied Beruriah. She then led her husband into the bedroom where their two sons lay in their eternal sleep. She removed the bedcovers from their still bodies. Rabbi Meir, seeing his beloved sons, and realizing that they had passed away, burst out into bitter weeping.

"My dear husband," Beruriah gently reminded him. "Didn't you yourself say a moment ago that the owner has the right to claim his property? G‑d gave and has taken away; blessed be the name of G‑d."

We are blessed in this world with limited life spans. I say blessed specifically. If we were to have infinite time on this earth, we would have no need to accomplish anything. We could procrastinate forever. We might become animalistic, focused only on pleasure, ignoring responsibility or even the needs of others. With our limited time on this earth, we have vital choices to make--how do we live our lives? What are our priorities?

As Jews, we have been given the greatest gift in the history of the world: The Torah. Our Torah is not merely a listing of laws, but a love letter, a marriage contract, a living document that helps us respond to the world around us. When we come together for Yizkor, we are acknowledging the history of our families, the history of our people. We remember those who touched our lives, those without whom we would not even exist.

Before we go into the Yizkor service, let us take a moment to remember, to recall. Let us take a deep breath.

Now imagine.

Who would you like to have seated next to you?

If you could choose anyone who has passed, and bring them back right now, who would it be?

When you have chosen someone, imagine what they would look like?

What age would they be? Older? Younger? The age that they were when they died?

What would they be wearing? Any favorite jewelry, accessories, shoes, a coat or a hat? Do you remember their scent? Favorite perfume or cologne?

Can you sense their presence?

Know that they are so glad to sit next to you today. Sit quietly, remembering and experiencing this moment.

You may have different people in your minds, but I am thinking about those who founded our holy community. I am thinking about the dozen families who met in Charlie Davis’ store. I am thinking about David Rothblatt, who went around to Jewish business owners and said “empty your pockets” to start CBI’s first capital campaign. I am thinking about Hyman Jacobs, the first president of CBI, who served for more than two decades to build our community. I am thinking about Rabbi Kleinfeld and Rabbi Chapman. I am thinking about Dr Leslie Weiss, may her memory be a blessing, who with Reva and Dean were on interview calls with me. I also think about those who are with us, but cannot be here today, like Rabbi Luski and our beloved Adele Morris, who we were blessed to see at Tashlich and served as our first female congregational president.

One does not have to be a revolutionary to make this world, to make our community a better place. One merely has to stand up and be counted. Over and over again in the last 97 years, CBI members have stepped up. They have showed up. They have opened their wallets and their hearts. Most importantly they have opened up their souls. On Rosh Hashanah I reminded you of the three fundamental missions of a kehillah kedoshah, to gather, to pray, and to study. All three of those return us to my opening. WE are not alone. WE are here together. In the time to come, those digital experiences will slowly return to analog. It will be safe to gather physically in larger numbers. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen. Yet it only happens WITH YOU.

The way it will happen is through our efforts. We have to continue to ensure that CBI is a safe place for all our members. We have to continue to work to protect one another, to support one another, to reach out to one another. On Rosh Hashanah, I patted us on the back for the efforts of our volunteers and phone trees, trying to reach each and every member. In the intermediate days, I received tochecha, reproof, that we have not been entirely successful in regularly reaching everyone. Some of our community members have NOT felt the love that we have tried to share. We can do better. We WILL do better.

On this Yom Kippur, let us truly learn from our mistakes. Let us give one another the benefit of the doubt, work to be there for one another, see the best in one another. As we prepare for Yizkor, I think of those that came before us. These few months would also have been challenging for them, yet I hope that the decisions we made would be understandable to them. I pray that they would have rolled up their sleeves and worked alongside us to find the kedushah, the holiness in these moments. Let us turn now to the Yizkor service, to remember those who came before us and whose legacies we strive to uphold. L’dor vador, from generation to generation, we will build this world with love.

Turn to p. 290 for the Yizkor service
Below you can see Allison Warren's message, mine begins at 10 minutes in, and the Yizkor service follows