In the Talmud there is an extensive debate about the purpose of a funeral. One opinion is that the funeral is for the person that has died, to honor their memory and pay them respect. The other opinion is that the funeral is for the living, for those who are still here, to help them heal, come to terms with their loss, and move forward in their lives (Ok that is modern language but the point is essentially the same in the Talmud). The flow of the talmudic sugya (section of talmudic text) seems to suggest that the rabbis preferred the latter answer – the funeral is for the living.
We might ask the same question about reciting Yizkor. Four times a year (the end of Passover, the second day of Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret) the tradition asks us to recall those we’ve loved and lost in a specific liturgical setting. A communal memorial prayer is chanted, people recite personal Yizkor prayers for their loved ones, and a communal kaddish is recited. It is always a moving and poignant service. But it is also, more and more, a fading service, one in which fewer and fewer people participate.
I’ve often wondered why. The old saying in professional shul circles is that the dead bring out the living. But it isn’t so any more. Perhaps it is because fewer and fewer people have a strong feeling of connection to the tradition, and especially to the liturgy. It is hard to be moved by something that feels so alien. But also I think it is because we’ve convinced ourselves that our busy lives take precedence. Even over memory.
That seems to me a dangerous position to stake out. What are we without memory? It is in many ways what defines us, gives us our identities, keeps us connected to community and even to family. Our shared experiences, our common history, the feeling that we have for those things that mean so much to us exists because of memory. Without it we would be adrift, floating in a lonely and disconnected sea.
So we might ask the same question about Yizkor that the Talmud asked about funerals. Is it for the living or the dead, do we recite the Yizkor prayers for us or for them? Of course the answer is yes. They deserve the honor, the recognition, the framing by tradition that the Yizkor service creates. They deserve a couple of hours of our time, 4 times a year when we might not otherwise come to shul. But we deserve it too. To allow ourselves to feel those feelings, experience those emotions, to carve out the time in our busy lives for ourselves, creating a sacred space that gives us the time to remember and to be grateful, time we otherwise would not have, despite our best intentions. So wherever you are, come to Yizkor services this Pesah. On the final day of the festival. And may God remember. Us. And them.