a text version of comments from yesterday’s Yizkor introduction –
Each year when I sit down to seder with my family I feel that my bubbie and zayde and there at the table with me. Not physically – at this point they’ve been gone for many years. My zayde died in 1976, and my bubbie just after we came to Baltimore, in 1999. But there is a powerful sense of their presence, the product of so many shared seders over the years, of particular memories from those nights in Baltimore, my father’s extended family all gathered around, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents. My bubbie was relatively quiet at those seders of my youth, involved with the cooking and cleaning, making her famous mundle bread, always eaten right after the fruit and chocolate covered nuts and just before the afikoman, and truth be told sometimes even after. She was a strong willed woman, never one to mince words, who in her own very particular and unmistakable way challenged the generations of her family – her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – with the importance of living a meaningful Jewish life.
My zaydie was a very different person. Soft spoken and gentle of spirit, he was a kind hearted soul from the old country. I remember him always in a white button down shirt, slightly rumpled, with pressed trousers, and often a straw hat perched on his head, thick glasses slightly obscuring his eyes. He was not the fighter my bubbie was, more accepting of modern life, and yet proud of his Judaism and the family he watched grow around him over the years. I have a distinct memory to this day of the very first time I chanted the four questions. My father is the youngest of four brothers, I was the youngest of the children ready to tackle the task. I had practiced in Hebrew school, and when the time came I was called to the head of the table where my bubbie and zayde sat together. My zayde had the haggadah open in front of him, and with one hand he pointed to the text on the page, while with the other he put his arm around my shoulders as I began the Mah Nishtana.
These are the family memories the seder table evokes. Where a grandparent sat, what a cousin always said, how an uncle said the kiddish every year, the chocolate cake recipe of an aunt that no one can make in quite exactly the same way. Of course it isn’t just Passover that brings these memories to our minds. There are Rosh Hashanah dinners, and Yom Kippur break-fasts, recollections of playing with the fringes of someone’s tallit, of sitting in particular seats each year, of how someone sang a part of the service with gusto. The sense in the tradition is that the holidays are moments of sanctified time, but over the years part of their sacred quality comes from the time that has been spent on those days with the people most important to us in our lives, with whom we have most intimately shared the journey of our own years. On the other days of the year they are in our minds, always a part of our day to day lives. But during the holidays we feel as if we are sharing time with them again, as if in some way this world and the world to come touch, and we can reach from one to the other.
I suspect that is why we are asked to say yizkor precisely at the moments when the holidays are coming to an end. Here it is, the very last day of Pesah – thank goodness! – and we gather for yizkor. But it is the same for every yizkor service. On Yom Kippur, the day that concludes the 10 days of repentance. On Shemini Atzeret, that last day of the Sukkoth festival cycle. Not the first day, but the second and last day of Shavuot. Cynics might say this was done because these would be days of light shul attendance, and so the yizkor service was put in on these days to bring Jews to the synagogue. As Rabbi Loeb used to say, the dead bring out the living. But the custom of reciting yizkor prayers is now almost a thousand years old, and back in those days my guess is most folks went to services. So there must be another reason why the end of each holiday period was chosen for yizkor.
And I believe that reason is so that we can say goodbye, once again. When the holidays end we go back to our regular lives, to the secular world with its concerns and worries, its distractions and the sense it contains of time passing so quickly. We lose the sense of timelessness that the holidays give us, of connection to things past, great events that shaped our people, but also the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters, the aunts, uncles, and friends who have shaped our lives, and helped to form our characters. May they rest in peace. And may we honor their memories by the way we live our own lives.