The major theme of the Jewish year is gratitude—gratitude for being a Jew, gratitude for being able to study God's Torah and to follow God's way of the Mitzvah, the holy deed. The ancient morning prayer which is said daily overflows with such gratitude: "Happy are we, how goodly is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!"
What are the major Jewish festivals but opportunities to express our gratitude for different aspects of our heritage? On the weekly Sabbath we thank God for the gift of divine rest. During Rosh Hashanah we articulate in words and in shofar sounds our delight and awe at having a God and Judge. Then on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, we express our gratitude for the capacity and opportunity to repent, to start over again. Although a solemn day, Yom Kippur is a day of hope, of new beginnings.
On Sukkot we demonstrate our gratitude for God's bounty; on Passover, for the freedom to worship God. We know that, although an inalienable right, such freedom is actually experienced by a small portion of the world's population, of which we Americans, thankfully, are a part. And on Shavuot we acknowledge our indebtedness to God for giving us the Torah, that divine guide to the good life which renews itself and us, and bids us to renew ourselves and it, and inspires us in everyday experience.
It is not surprising that—on these festivals of thanksgiving and spiritual renewal—it became a custom for us to include Yizkor prayers, in which we express gratitude for the memories of our loved ones and for the Divine Rememberer and Preserver of all souls. Our memories are as dear to us as the other gifts and opportunities that God has given us. We are also grateful to have a God to Whom we can offer prayer. This we acknowledge on all our festivals.
As we recite Yizkor on each of our festivals, as we experience the changing seasons and their changing moods, may our mourning become a celebration of memory through celebration of those festivals that bring renewal and the blessing of gratitude to our lives.
B'shalom u-bivrachah, Rabbi Elliott B. Gertel