Tag Archives: ritual

Structured Memories

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!

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, grief, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor

The Thread

I’ve seen it a thousand times, over and over and over again. The ark is opened, and the congregation rises reflexively. The Torahs are resting there, dressed in their finery, the elegant cloaks and silver crowns that beautify them and remind us of royalty. Someone reaches into the ark to lift the scroll, placing it carefully in the arms of the hazzan, the leader of prayer. There is a jingling of metal, silver bells ring softly, the breastplate slides slightly as the Torah moves from one person to the next. Everyone watches, eyes alight with – what? History? Tradition? Yes. And perhaps also a sense of connection and continuity, of momentarily touching something that is eternal, that was, is, and will be. A ritual enacted, the same each time with subtle variations. Same as it ever was.

But this time, for some reason I will never know, my breath caught in my throat. I was moved, struck in some new way by the power of that simple moment. Maybe it was the way the young man so reverentially lifted that Torah, with grace and almost awe reaching forward to grasp it, carefully and gently placing it into the Hazzan’s embrace. Maybe it was how I know the men, the respect I have for them, the love I know they have in their hearts for our tradition. I suspect the way that shadows cast from some tree’s leaves danced on the wall had something to do with it, and also the soft early morning sunshine slowly rising. And that powerful sense we sometimes have of time’s compression, of the swiftly moving years somehow collapsing, of these particular men with their phylacteries and prayer shawls, enacting this ancient ritual that has been going on uninterrupted, century after century, generation after generation.

There was an imperceptible shift in the air and the moment passed. But as the old scroll was carried through the congregation something sacred hung in the air, just out of site, just there. Remember the great and enigmatic line at the end of King Lear? “Look there! Look there!” Whatever did he see? I looked, and it was gone. But a soft soul-tingling sense lingers on.

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Filed under ritual, Shakespeare, synagogue, Torah