Yizkor: Personal Glimpses
Editor’s note: Tishrei brings many of us a chance to spend
time with our families by going home for the high holidays. For others, Tishrei
means experiencing college life on a different level – the spiritual plane.
Either way, Tishrei comes with many opportunities for personal growth. One
aspect of "the high holiday season" that has always interested me is yizkor, the
memorial service, since I’ve never stayed in the sanctuary during the
recitation. We here at KOACH thought it would be thought-provoking to provide
the college community with two views of this important set of prayers. Another
concept surrounding yizkor is the idea of being a proper mourner, and a proper
comforter. Ari Saks and Debi Horowitz have been generous with us in sharing
their very personal feelings on both issues. If you’d like to respond, please
email me at AudsKOC@aol.com.
My Bond of Life
by Debi Horowitz
JTS / Columbia
For the first ten years of my life, I left with the crowd of
kids in an exile of the youth from the unknown, Yizkor.
As is custom, those who
have not lost a family member leave, partially out of superstition that one who
stays by choice is almost asking to need to return. I had followed this
superstition, but by my eleventh Yom Kippur, I had become one of those people
who did need to stay. I had lost my father ten months before.
As I looked around
the room, consisting mostly of adult and elderly congregants who had lost their
parents, I read the passage in Yizkor for those who had lost their fathers. I
vowed (without vowing of course) that I would give charity to causes that were
important to my dad. I prayed that his soul would be "bound up in the bond of
life," but in truth I had no clue what "the bond of life" was.
I quickly finished because I only had one paragraph to
recite, and I reminisced about the past ten months, and the way the world had
changed in my eyes.
I remember being shocked, and almost hurt, when I arrived
home from my dad's burial, and everyone was acting so normal. People were
laughing, telling jokes, and smiling. What was probably (and hopefully will
remain) the most devastating event of my life had just taken place, and those
who were here to help me were smiling. I couldn't understand it. The kids in my
fifth grade class came, and the first thing they did was grab a ball and begin
playing soccer in my backyard. Again, I was surprised and hurt, but I played
with them because I didn't know what else to do. I said something later to my
mom about how I thought it might be inappropriate for people to be telling jokes
and playing soccer in our shiva house, but she didn't seem disturbed and just
replied that it was "okay" for them to do that.
I believed my mother (because parents know everything when
you're ten) but I didn't understand it until eight years later, when I was on
the other side, trying to comfort a friend who was dealing with the same
tragedy: a young father, lost to cancer.
The truth was, I didn't know what to
say. She came to me for advice and comfort and I could tell her my experiences
but I had no idea what words to use when I went to visit her. Of course, the
usual ones came to mind, "He's out of his pain now" or "He's in a better place
now, with God," or "It will get better"... and yet I remembered how I hated when
anyone said those words to me. Even a simple "I'm sorry" just became trite and
So I asked myself, are there words to say to someone to ease their
No. That was my conclusion. Words don't take away pain. But that
does not mean that people are powerless to help. After all, there's a reason why
the house is supposed to be crowded at all times during shiva, because people do
help tremendously - just not with words.
And that was when I realized why my mom had said it was okay
for our friends to laugh and play soccer; they were doing exactly what they
should have been doing: being with us, physically. The best way to show people
that you are there for them, I discovered, is to actually be there for them. At
some point words become insignificant, but company never does. You don't need to
talk, because just being there is truly what a mourner needs from his friends.
Now that I have done Yizkor for ten years, the words of charity and bonds of
life have finally found meaning for me. Charity is a way of continuing to be
with the deceased. To uphold what is important to the person is showing your
care much more than all the words in the world. Doing what they would have done
allows them to continue doing mitzvot in the world, allowing them to remain here
even without speech at all. As for the bonds of life, its literal meaning I
understand as all Jewish souls recombining like putting a drop of water into the
ocean. But I think there is a deeper message, one that is a model for friends of
mourners on this earth.
As the Artscroll Siddur tells us, the soul is "unlimited by
the constraints of time and space and the weakness of flesh." The soul is not
limited to the physical world, just as being with someone who is mourning should
not be constrained by the limits of words. And just as the soul is bound with
our matriarchs and patriarchs, so too should the friends of mourners be bound
with those in mourning.
Yizkor is not only allowing us to remember the deceased,
but showing us how to be there for the bereaved. It is showing us that what is
important in this world is not what is limited to this world. Words are not as
important as presence, which is something that is done by those alive, dead, and
Looking back at how I survived the past ten years without my
father, few spoken words come to mind. What I remember as pulling me through was
the hug given to me by my best friend at the burial, and those who came to spend
time with me during shiva.
I remember those who held my hand during Kaddish, and
I remember those who helped me make a minyan for each yahrtzeit. I remember all
my wonderful friends and family who were there for me by being with me. I
remember those who sat with me and held me. Mostly, I remember the people who
didn't let go. Those who were with me, even with the jokes and sports, are those
with whom I am bound for eternity.
Looking to learn more about losing someone? prayers for the
living and the deceased?
Rabbi Elyse Winick recommends: