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An encounter with ‘Yizkor’— coming to terms with a prayer

By Rabbi SHMUEL GOLDIN
(JNS) – I can clearly remember the moment when I finally joined the club that I had dreaded joining for years; when I found myself remaining in shul to recite the prayer of Yizkor for the first time. Hesitantly, I waited with trepidation to experience the power of this first Yizkor … only to be sorely let down. “This is it?” I wondered as I looked at the text before me, “This is what the drama is all about? One short paragraph? A few sentences asking God to remember my father and an El Maleh?” 

The Yizkor prayer had been a source of mystery to me for years. Now, with its text open before me, I was disappointed. It seemed less significant, and much less powerful, than I had expected. As I studied the passage itself, however, my disappointment was soon replaced with an even greater sense of bewilderment. The prayer seemed deeply puzzling. What exactly, I asked myself, are we praying for?

“Yizkor, God, please remember our departed loved ones” … Remember? How can God forget?

“Because we intend to give tzedakah in their memory” … Even if God can somehow forget, why should our tzedakah make the difference? Don’t our departed relatives deserve to be “remembered” in their own merit?

Finally, and most importantly,

“Remember” … To what end? What are the practical implications of Divine remembrance? What will change if God “remembers” my father?

To be sure, the concept of God “remembering” does appear a number of times in the Torah. On each of those occasions, however, the text seems to be informing us that God is not simply remembering a person or phenomenon, but that he is now willing to act on that remembrance. It is the Torah’s way of saying that God, after a period of waiting, is ready to assume an active role.

This explanation, however, so helpful in understanding the biblical text, was singularly unhelpful to me when it came to understanding Yizkor. Here, we were apparently not asking God to “do” anything.  We were simply asking him to “remember.” At face value, such a request did not seem to make any sense.

A few years passed before I realized that a sober warning in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) could provide an answer to my Yizkor quandary: “Akavia ben M’halalel says, ‘Look upon three things and you will not fall into the grip of sin. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to undergo a judgment and a reckoning.’ ”

At first glance, the sequence in Akavia’s account of an ultimate “judgment and reckoning” before God is problematic. Wouldn’t a “reckoning” precede a “judgment,” rather than the reverse?” Why does Akavia invert the logical sequence?

A beautiful answer is suggested by a several scholars. At the end of our lives, these sages maintain, each of us is actually destined to undergo two separate trials. The first of these heavenly hearings—referred to by Akavia as “judgment”—is the classical, straightforward procedure by which God measures our lives in retrospect. Our record is reviewed; our mitzvot and aveirot are tallied and “placed on the scale;” and a verdict is rendered.

After this process of judgment ends, however, an even more important investigation begins—one that can only commence upon an individual’s death. During the course of this inquiry—referred to by Akavia as a “reckoning”—God measures our continuing impact upon the world that we have left behind. Who are the people who will remain affected by our touch? How did we change the course of their lives? What was our lasting contribution?

Unlike judgment, the process of reckoning is open-ended, literally continuing until the end of time. During the course of our lives, we not only influence the “usual suspects” (members of our family and our friends); our actual reach is much broader. Actions, words, gestures on our part; large and small, have the power to affect the lives of people with whom we interface each and every day.

Consider the possibility, for example, that a kindly stranger passing through the shtetl of Aishoshok in 1898, took the time to converse with an eager 17-year-old that he met along the way. Consider the possibility that this conversation inspired the 17-year-old, my grandfather, to begin thinking about an eventual journey from Lithuania to America? The stranger’s identity will have been lost in the mists of time, yet his words will have affected the generations of progeny and students eventually touched by my grandfather and his teachings. The lives of these individuals will then, in turn, intersect with the lives of others who will themselves interface with yet others, ad infinitum, across the span of time. All this will be included in the stranger’s “reckoning” because of a conversation, the impact of which he could not possibly have known.

What similar phenomena might our own “reckonings” include? The time we took out of a pressured day to reassure a colleague who seemed down; the kind word we shared with the harried salesclerk on an especially busy day; the report we gave to a supervisor concerning the excellent work of an individual on his team; the invitation we extended to someone who was going to eat alone for a Shabbat meal; the effort we made, not only to give tzedakah, but to actually speak encouragingly to the person holding out his hand. These and other simple opportunities so easy for us to miss, so seemingly unimportant, can make all the difference in the lives of others. These unexpected moments will form the substance of our “reckoning” at the hands of the heavenly court.

Just as importantly, however, each of these events will then be included in the “reckonings” of our parents, grandparents and all who helped shaped us. Our acts of kindness and compassion will reflect back on those who taught us to be kind. The results of our compassion will be added to the ledgers of those who modeled compassion to us.

Coming full-circle, therefore, we can return to Yizkor, and what was a puzzling prayer maybe now can be better understood.

We turn to God, and we pray:

“Yizkor-God, please remember our departed loved ones” … Hashem, we recognize that our own words and actions serve as ongoing testimony to the value of our loved ones’ lives. As their “reckoning” continues to unfold, we state emphatically that the good that we do is because of them. They are responsible for our positive actions today.

“Because we intend to give tzedakah in their memory” … We, therefore, commit ourselves towards increased acts of goodness in their honor. We pledge to be more aware of the easily missed opportunities for kindness that confront us each day. In return, we ask that You add the value of our increased commitment not only to our ledgers, but to their ledgers as well.

 “Remember” … Finally, Hashem, consider the countless other individuals who, knowingly or unknowingly, were affected and are still being affected by the presence of our loved ones. In each of their lives and in the lives that they themselves will yet shape, you will see the unending contributions of those whom we ask you to remember today.

May we each, in word and deed, serve as powerful, ongoing testimony to the merit of those who shaped our lives. And may we also be wise and righteous enough, in our own right, to leave behind many others who, through speech and action, will one day testify positively on our behalf. Ultimately, that is the truest Yizkor of all.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., and past president of the Rabbinical Council of America. He lives in Jerusalem.

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