Yom Kippur Yizkor

Wednesday October 5, 2022
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Yom Kippur Yizkor

A few years back I received a call from a funeral home. It was not a home that regularly dealt with Jewish families, but a Jewish woman had passed away and they were looking for a rabbi to officiate. I met with the family and discovered that the deceased husband had spent decades in the NY penitential system. The family was not particularly familiar with Jewish funeral customs, but I worked to explain them. They did say that before the service there would be a wake, which I said under no circumstances would I attend. We agreed to my participation in a traditional Jewish funeral and I found out enough about the woman to give a meaningful eulogy. As I arrived at the funeral home, the funeral director flagged me over and asked that I speak to him privately. He explained that the husband of the deceased and the grandson had gotten into a physical altercation, leading to the arrest of the grandson, a few minutes earlier. The police had given the husband a warning, and asked that he behave, at least through the funeral service. While we may not all have as colorful stories, no funeral is easy!

How can we ensure that such an awful funeral experience does not happen to us? On this day, we are rehearsing our deaths. We are acknowledging our own mortality. Like many procrastinators, I see great power in a deadline! Knowing that we are not physically eternal demands action from us. It requires us to make choices in our lives, to consider how we live, to finish what we started--or even to know when we should quit while we are ahead.

A few years back columnist Bari Weiss wrote about Yom Kippur as a “dress rehearsal for death”. She quoted rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the Senior Rabbi of Central Synagogue in NY, who in turn quoted Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv” "Remembering death in the proper way can bring a person to the ultimate joy.” I will repeat that, 
"Remembering death in the proper way can bring a person to the ultimate joy.” (See note at bottom)
Rav Ziv reminds us that awareness of our mortality can make us feel like at the next level. Sometimes it confuses us--as the Barenaked Ladies song One Week says “I’m the kinda guy who laughs at a funeral”--but the heightened emotions around mortality can inspire us to live our lives more fully.

While far less attended than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, next week is actually my favorite time on the Jewish calendar. We build our Sukkot, enjoy meals outside (when the weather cooperates), invite family and friends to rejoice with us, and we are commanded in Deuteronomy and as we often sing:

ושמחת בחגך והיית אך שמח
You shall rejoice on your festivals​, and should be fully happy

Commanded to rejoice, commanded to be happy seems like an impossibility, yet our tradition shows that by inviting others into the Sukkah, sharing meals, living in a fragile space for a few days, being aware of our mortality, can bring us great joy!

In her teachings, Rabbi Buchdahl notes the short distance from Yom Kippur to Sukkot, sharing a three step formula for truly rejoicing in the upcoming days:

“it’s as easy as 1-2-3.
Each day, connect with 1 person, take note of 2 Gratitudes and perform 3 Random Acts of Kindness.” (See note)

These steps that Rabbi Buchdahl mentions, the steps that our tradition demands may truly lead us to happiness. If we connect to others, appreciate our gifts, and share that joy with others, it is pretty hard to be cranky.

This remains true whether we are young or young at heart, whether our bodies are working at 100% or even if we are in our last days. If we live our lives to share our joy with others, happiness will return to us. (And our eulogy is a lot easier to write!)

One of my favorite prayers of these days is Ki Anu Amecha, we are your people and you are our God. We are your children, and you gave us life. It shares a series of metaphors and relationships, trying to help us and God see our connections to one another. What makes this prayer so powerful is its acknowledgement of the power of relationship. It teaches us that nothing we do is truly done alone. Every one of us had help. Every one of us has others who have shared with us. Whether it is parents, children, friends, lovers or loved ones, we have been helped and we have helped others.

Last night I mentioned Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Mishnah Ta’anit. The Talmud elaborates on his statement. Taanit 30b:8:

§ The mishna taught that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur. The Gemara asks: Granted, Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it has the elements of pardon and forgiveness, and moreover, it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.

Our most vital Jewish relationship--that between God and the Jewish people--was renewed not with the first set of tablets, but with the second. The first set was given out of love. The second set of tablets was shared with forgiveness. (The second set was a cooperative set between God and Moses!) An orthopedist once told me that the regrown bone at the site of a bone break is stronger than the rest of the bone. After the forgiveness, the people found a closer relationship. They realized they truly couldn’t live with one another.

So how can we make today a day of JOY and trembling? How can we transform fear into opportunity?

For twenty five hours we rehearse death. We skip our leather shoes, avoid showering and intimate relations, fast from food and drink if we are able. We act like angels, focusing only on the spiritual, attempting to put the physical aside.

When we finish this day, we should find a feeling of great joy. After truly acknowledging that we are all dying--albeit slowly, how much more can we appreciate that we are also LIVING. Today we know that we CAN live and live with more consideration. We have another chance. We have a chance to reconnect, to apologize, to make peace, to appreciate the blessings of our lives. We have hope. Our mistakes do not define us. From the great wisdom that is a facebook meme, “Don’t carry your mistakes around with you. Instead, place them under your feet and use them as stepping stones to rise above them.” We have been granted an incredible gift--the gift to repair, to repent, to pray, to help others--teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah--to find our way to the path of joy and blessing.

Immediately following Yom Kippur, we rush out to build our Sukkot. We rush out to re-enter life and discover the blessings of our physical selves! Yet in this moment, we once again tremble before God. We review our choices, consider our actions and wonder if we are living up to the examples of the ones that came before us. We wonder, as we approach our deadlines, if we have made the right choices.

Godwilling, we can say that we have. Godwilling, we can accept that we have done what we needed to do--and yet--we know there are always more possibilities. We can continue to turn and turn our Torah, to see how to be better siblings, parents, children, friends. We can also get to know our clergy--so at least they will say our names correctly at our funerals! As we rehearse our deaths today, let us work to live lives of simcha, of happiness, of bracha, of blessing, and of tikvah, of hope. Let us live lives of blessing--not only on the days when we emulate death--but on every day now and forever.

  • https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/17/opinion/yom-kippur-death-rehearsal-morality.html 
  • https://www.centralsynagogue.org/worship/sermons/joy-is-central-on-yom-kippur