I’ve often wondered why the tradition is so invested in our remembering the losses of our lives. Think of it for a moment. Yartzeits are marked, and people come to services on those days to recite the kaddish. The unveiling ritual, often scheduled a full year after someone has died, brings a family back to the cemetery right about the time their grief may have been diminishing. And four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover (the 8th day), and Shavuot (the 2nd day), the liturgical calendar asks us to come to services to recite Yizkor prayers.
But why the frequency and emphasis? Would we not, organically, on our own, day to day (let alone on such scheduled occasions), think of those we’ve lost? Don’t they come into our minds even without any special prayers or scheduled moments? Aren’t our losses with us every day? And if so, why all of these kaddishes? These yartzeits and Yizkors?
Perhaps one answer is that we need to be reminded that time is passing by. I have countless times over the years had the following conversation with a congregant who has come to shul to observe a yartzeit: ‘How long is your loved one gone?’ ‘Rabbi, I can’t believe it, but it is 5 years!’ Or 10, or 20, or 40. Yes, how the time goes by, and there is something important about marking its passage, about reflecting on the fact that we have bravely journeyed onward after our losses, that the sun has continued to rise and set, the moon to wax and wane, the years to pass.
There is also something to be said for connecting grief and loss and remembering to a sacred community. In that community we understand our experience is shared. We rise for Yizkor each remembering our own losses, but we rise together, surrounded by friends, supported by our fellow worshippers, comforted by a common liturgy and history. And in that moment we also honor the memories of those we’ve lost through the lens of the Tradition, so commonly an important part of their lives and the legacy they’ve left behind for us.
And also we need to carve out intentional moments in the course of our lives dedicated to remembering, reflecting, understanding, thinking, and wondering. Moments when we can feel grief, or gratitude, or often both. Moments when we can reaffirm, in a formal way, how important memory is in our lives, how deeply we feel life’s losses, and how connected we remain to the people with whom we’ve shared the journey of our lives. Even when the journey of their life has ended.
May their memories always be for a blessing!