a text version of my remarks before the Yizkor service on Shemini Atzeret 5778 –
One thing rabbinical work gives you is a powerful sense of the passage of time. It is not just the holidays, how quickly they seem to come and go, how quickly one HHD season seems to blend into the next. It is also the life cycle events that you are involved with – the weddings and funerals, the baby namings and brises and b’nai mitzvah. I have discovered over the last couple of years how powerful that can be, how lucky I am to have served the congregation for a long enough period of time that I am officiating at weddings of young men and women I’ve known since even before their bar or bat mitzvah. I am now officiating at b’nai mitzvah of children whose parents I married. Let alone the fact that when I first came to Beth El, I was around the same age as the couples I was marrying, even younger than some of them. But today, when I work with couples to prepare for their wedding, I am often – surprised – to realize I am close to two decades older than the young man and woman. Time certainly does go by.
And we tend to experience that passage of time in a linear fashion. We think of time as moving in one direction, from past to present to future. But life cycle events blur that distinction. At weddings and baby naming and b’nai mitzvah past present and future seem to blend together. I’ll give you an example – a baby naming or bris is largely about the future – we give the baby a name that she or he will bear in the years ahead – we often say, ‘this is the name that the child will be called to the Torah with at their bat mitzvah,’ or ‘this is the name that will be written on their ketubah one day!’ That is all about the future!
But the truth is, a baby naming or bris is also very much about the past. We might pass the child through the generations of the family, the grandparents and great-grandparents, if the child is so lucky. We might use a kiddish cup or tallit that belonged to a grandfather or great-grandfather, evoking the family’s history. And we name after people in the family who have passed away. So in reality what happens at a baby naming or a bris or a bar or bat mitzvah, or even a wedding, is that there is a strange kind of blending of time, a moment in our present when the past and the future come together. Even the emotions that people experience at those moments are a blending the past and the future – the tears that you often see when a parent explains a baby’s Hebrew name are coming from the hope that parent feels for his or her child’s future, but at the same time those tears come from the act of remembering the past, of thinking about a grandparent or other loved one who is no longer in this world, and whose name the child will bear in the years ahead.
You may remember that a year ago or so there was a movie playing in theaters called Arrival. It told the tale of a young linguist, played by the actress Amy Adams, who is called upon to try to communicate with aliens who have landed on earth. The idea is that every species must communicate in some way, so there must be some kind of recognizable language pattern that a trained linguist can distinguish. What she ultimately learns in the course of the film is that the Aliens experience time differently than we do. They experience time more like a life cycle event – as a blending of past, present, and future. Sometimes they exist in the future, sometimes in the past, and sometimes in the present.
And in the film, as the Amy Adams character begins to understand how the aliens communicate, she also begins to experience time in the same way they do. This makes the film confusing and wonderful at the same time. Confusing because it is hard to tell, at any given point in the movie, if she is in a past, present, or future moment. But wonderful, because it asks a fundamental question – were we to know what the future holds – the pain that it will hold, even the losses that we will inevitably one day suffer – would we still move forward with our lives? Would we still marry, become parents, be devoted children and siblings, work so hard to deepen our most important relationships, knowing that one day they will be taken aways from us?
Yizkor is an answer to that question. When we rise to say the yizkor prayers we are in part saying that despite the pain we feel when we so vividly remember our losses, we would do it all over again. Even knowing what we know now – how hard it is, even after experiencing the pain of loss, the depth of sorrow, the sadness and the grief, we would begin it all over again if we could. That is one of the things we affirm when we rise for Yizkor.
And of course Yizkor also is a moment when our past, present, and future come together. The memories we recall today come to us from the depths of time, from years gone by, from experiences shared, from lives that were intertwined. That is the past. But we again experience the pain of our losses in this present moment, on this Shimini Atzeret, in this service with this congregation. And as we do we make a promise for the future – to keep the memories of those we honor today alive in our hearts and in our families in years ahead. May those memories now, then, and always be for a blessing –