December 26, 2013Rabbi Dr. Edwin C. Goldberg

When I was growing up, the Yom Kippur afternoon Yizkor (remembrance) service was a very big deal.  In fact, at Temple B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, the N’ilah(concluding) service would be held before Yizkor, except that, as we were about to hear the final shofar blast, we would then turn to pray Yizkor.  It was a trick, of course, but it insured that people stayed for N’ilah because they would not miss Yizkor.

As I and the other editors1 of the upcoming Mishkan HaNefesh (the new High Holiday prayerbook to be published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis), believe, our ancient Jewish tradition shows great wisdom in teaching us to gather for services of remembrance on Yom Kippur and on the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot). These awaken strong memories of love and family: the holy days we shared with parents, grandparents, children, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and cherished friends.  It is hard to sit in synagogue and not think of the days when our deceased loved ones accompanied us.  To paraphrase the late Rabbi Morris Adler, there presence is more real than their absence.

From its inception a thousand years ago, when it was prayed by Ashkenazic Jews on the morning of Yom Kippur, Yizkor has had two profound themes: God’s embrace of the loved ones who are beyond our reach; and our commitment to do the good deeds that are within our reach by giving tzedakah in their memory. When we say “Yizkor, may God remember . . .” we proclaim our faith that those who have died have significance now and forever.

The traditional liturgy for Yizkor is pretty sparse.  Our version for the new machzor (High Holiday prayberbook), will incorporate a good deal of poetry. Why?  Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, and by our refusal to vanish – to let others vanish – without leaving a verbal record. Poetry is a stubborn art.

Here is an example of a poem we wish to include, tied into the subject of memory and taking our place in the chain of tradition and responsibility, whether we are ready or not.

Death of A Parent

Move to the front
of the line
a voice says, and suddenly
there is nobody
left standing between you
and the world, to take
the first blows
on their shoulders.
This is the place in books
where part one ends, and part two begins,
and there is no part three.
The slate is wiped
not clean but like a canvas
painted over in white
so that a whole new landscape
must be started,
bits of the old
still showing underneath –
those colors sadness lends
to a certain hour of evening.
Now the line of light
at the horizon
is the hinge between earth
and heaven, only visible
a few moments
as the sun drops
its rusted padlock
into place.

Linda Pastan, b. 1932

It’s been said that the “poet is one who will not be reconciled, who is determined to leave a trace in words, to transform oceanic depths of feeling into the faithful nuances of art.” (Edward Hirsch)  We hope that our version of Yizkor will help those who remember incorporate art into their grieving.  Like the rest of the these Days of Awe, we see Yizkor as sacred opportunity for personal transformation.

  1. The members of the Mishkah HaNefesh editorial committee, in addition to Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, include, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Sheldon Marder, and Rabbi Leon Morris.

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and serves as the coordinating editor of Mishkan HaNefesh.


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