Along with many others, I grew up in a home where the Yizkor days were held in some sort of ‘mystique’ status and the attendance in shul for the people saying Yizkor was mandatory. I often asked myself why this was so, and as I have grown older, I am beginning to understand the deeper level of this practice. Yizkor means to ‘remember’ and the very act of remembering begs the obvious question: for what purpose? Why?
Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the great spokesman for Agudas Yisroel, once commented that we are described as a ‘nation’, in two ways. On Friday night we are called ‘am medushnei oneg’ which means that we take pleasure in the joys of Shabbat observance and in our close relationship to God. We are also called by Jeremiah ‘am seridei charev’ ,which means ’the nation of the remnants of the sword’. This is a reference to our painful history of torment, persecution and suffering. Many Jews define their Jewishness through these painful communal memories without any consideration for the glorious aspects of our history.
Rabbi Sherer considered which description of the Jewish people is central for our future? His suggested we focus on ‘am medushnei oneg’. He explained that this focus produces a vibrant Judaism, full of joy and hope, with Jews constantly growing in their connection with God. The second type of Jew has a Jewish ‘identity’ but may not transmit it to a future generation who did not experience the suffering which he/she personally went through.
I have come to realize that our task in the act of Yizkor is (and always was) to make the remembering ‘positive’, to celebrate the great achievements of those loved ones we memorialize. We take their lives and transmit this to our children and beyond. This creates the reminiscent moments in our families as moments of pride and hope. The pain of suffering is always important to contemplate but at the time of Yizkor we are as much remembering the future generations, those who are not yet born, as we remember our loves ones who have passed. In the end of the day our missions are similar even though our circumstances are so profoundly different.
Let us cry for our loved ones and mix tears of joy/pride into those tears of sadness, as we remember the dedication of those earlier generations to keep our heritage alive. Let us all be blessed to become ‘am medushnai oneg’ in our Jewish lives and to make the act of remembering an uplifting experience. We are living in an era where we are transitioning from first-hand testimonies to the horrors of our recent history, to a generation that doesn’t know a world without a Jewish army and homeland. Through the Zechut Avot, merits of our ancestors, which we invoke so frequently during this auspicious time, may we gain strength, commitment and dedication to God.
As we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, of the first Jew to willingly sacrifice his life, Isaac, let us recall all those who sacrificed their lives. Let us pray that in the year to come the entire Jewish nation has to opportunity to live by the Torah and not, God forbid anything else.