Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Yom Kippur Yizkor Services
Rabbi David Lyon
October 12, 2016
Congregation Beth Israel
Yizkor means remembering. Whether they died only a short time ago or many years already, remembering remains our duty. It can be a pleasant responsibility. Remembering good times gladdens the soul. Best of all is that we can recall them any time and any way we want; there’s no one to tell us how or what we have to remember. But, you and I know that remembering isn’t always easy to do. It can remind us of what we lost and what we can never fully recover. How many times have we reached for the phone to reminisce together? Or, called out for a loved one in the other room? Never to hear the voice again, or to see them in the house, again, is so final. It’s so stark. We have no choice but to labor slowly and sometimes, alone, to remember the pieces of our years and our loves we savor so deeply.
This past year, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, died. When he walked out of the concentration camps, he had a choice. He could have succumbed completely to everything he endured and then survived; or he could have chosen life and borne witness to everything he endured and survived. Thankfully, he didn’t succumb completely. Never the same, but always among the living, Wiesel chose to bear witness. He taught many wise lessons. Today, one in particular, stands out to me. He said that when we tell others about the Holocaust, they become witnesses to it, too. Therefore, the number of witnesses doesn’t diminish; rather, it grows.
Wiesel was passionate about finding humanity where it was forsaken; and, he hoped that it could be fashioned out of the ashes, never to be forsaken again. To some extent, he succeeded. He did it by empowering us to be witnesses, too. And, we are. Therefore, we learned, as did he, that there is a part of us that never dies, as long as we remember.
Elie Wiesel carried a unique burden that few of us can ever know. But, Wiesel taught us how to mourn without losing hold of our own life. Without survivor’s guilt, he transformed his life into a living tribute to those who perished. He found his purpose in telling his story so others would become witnesses, too. Wiesel succeeded where others did not.
It’s a mitzvah, a great deed in Judaism, to speak of the deceased. Though the body is laid to rest, the immortality of the soul enters the peace of life eternal; and, the memories of that life are entrusted to us. If we don’t bury the memories, too, then they thrive in our words, deeds, and hopes. Something of us never dies. So, whether the time has been short or long since their death, recalling how we spent time with them brings them back to us as often and wherever we wish.
Every summer, Lisa and I fly-fish on the Roaring Fork River in Colorado. Our skills have developed over the years. Funny thing is that when I was a boy, my father took my brother and me to a fishing pond stocked with trout. At the end of the day, we returned to the office where we had checked in, and my father asked for a raincheck. He explained that we hadn’t caught anything at all. The front desk clerk told my father that in all his years we were the first ones who never caught anything in their stocked pond.
I learned later that my father was embarrassed. At the time my brother and I were too young to understand that the fun we were having wasn’t the only point of the excursion. But, my father grew up on Chicago’s west side. There wasn’t much time for learning how to fish, and his father, an immigrant from Russia, had little patience for such things. I’m glad we have time for such things now. When Lisa and I float down the river with our friends and a guide, I often think of that funny day at the trout pond. If my father could see me now he wouldn’t believe it either. We never did use that raincheck; but, every summer when I float down the Roaring Fork, my father is with me.
Telling this story doesn’t hurt anymore. It doesn’t hurt when I can share it with my congregational family. Now, you are witnesses to my father’s memory, too. What story will you tell about your beloved? To whom will you tell it? How will you make us a witness to your beloved? There is so much to remember. There is so much to tell. As we gather up these memories, we discover how much we still possess. While we were letting go, we were drawing them closer than ever before.
The poet, known as Rachel, wrote in her poem called, “My Dead”:
They alone are left me; they alone still faithful,
for now death can do no more to them.
At the bend of the road, at the close of the day,
they gather around me silently, and walk by my side.
This is a bond nothing can ever loosen.
What I have lost: what I possess forever.
In this time of Yizkor, we pray: O God, remember our loved ones, the men, women and children who filled our days; that they may know that love once shared in this world is a love that endures in the peace of life eternal. May you embrace them, O God, as we once embraced each other; love them as they loved us; and, then with grateful hearts, may we all be comforted. Amen.