Our Story and Our Plot

Yizkor, Yom Kippur, 5777

When we are examining our lives, living our everyday life, who is to say what is banal, ordinary or routine?  How do we know that that smell of a cleaning product, as we walk through a building’s lobby, will not take us back to a certain place in our childhood?  Or that the sound of an Eastern European accent won’t remind us of a parent, grandparent, of a world we once inhabited, yet, now, feels lost.  As we move from one point to the next, what do we have to help us decipher what happens in between those points, that give our lives a shape?  I think Yizkor is part of our tradition’s attempt to mark the points of our lives with meaning.

This sermon began a year ago.  I mentioned at this exact spot how inadequate I felt when I read the names on the Yarhzeit list.  That I read them and when I would say “may their memory be for a blessing” it felt, hollow.  I asked you to share your thoughts, memories and reflections on the person/people you are remembering during Yizkor because I wanted the names we read/hear to be people with stories.

Some of you shared with me your memories- some I received a few days after Yom Kippur while sitting in the Sukkah, some in December and others last week.  I want to genuinely thank you—these were intimate, and they were personal.  They were a taste, a meaningful glimpse into a life I would, otherwise, never know beyond their name.  I was able to see the trajectory of a person’s life, as well as their family.  Our lives and our memories are so much greater than the arrangement of events.

In his essay, Aspects of the Novel, the writer E. M. Forster describes the difference between a story and a plot.  He said that a story is, “The king died and then the queen died.” And a plot is, “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”  He wrote that the sequence of events is maintained but causality is introduced; the “and” of a story is overshadowed by the “why” of the plot.  A plot fills in the accumulation of events and it is filled in with meaning and emotion- it is what causes us pain and sadness yet where we find love.

A story is a family perished in the holocaust.  A plot is the memories of those who died in the holocaust who you could never have known, whose lives and stories are always felt just below the surface.  A story is the name you have or the name of a sibling.  A plot is the personality that feels not entirely yours, one that is influenced yet just beyond your ability to understand its origin.  A story is a home shared with grandparents that was characteristic of so many immigrant homes.  Yet the experiences they shared of surviving and its desperation, their losses and triumphs—the life that was created in that home, that is a plot.

Remembering loved ones is not only about keeping their memory alive or even making their memory a blessing—their memory becomes a blessing as we cycle through their lives with our life in mind.  This process of overlapping, laying their story next to ours, recognizes that each of us is here because of them; that my story has progressed, beyond an accumulation of facts.  And, in turn, they are, now, more alive—their memory is something greater than a story because each us can look at them and say "I am here."  With each day we add to their story.

A story is his father died and he took over for the family.  He was the oldest and he became the owner of the business.  He worked nights in a defense plant after working all day in the store.  A plot is he was honest and talented.  That not only did he turn that into a thriving business but he added life to his community and his customers, who, above all else, saw and knew him as a mensch.

Another story is he was a father and a husband.  A plot is that the person you are today is because of that person.  That he encouraged you to pursue your passions, regardless of how others saw them.  That the direction of your moral compass was shaped and eternally directed towards his—towards the good.

A story is moving to a city not your own and your mother passing away; a story is you began to say kaddish.  A plot is that the morning minyan helped you balance a wobbling ship, set the coordinates towards meaning, “a vessel to shape and contain” grief and “generous companions” who did not need to be asked to accompany you on the path that helped you to regain your footing.  A story is that you were sad and hurt. A plot is that a community gave you space to admit pain, surface hurt, begin to mourn and accept loss.

A story may be that I ate some cereal and fruit—it may be a story we all have.  But when eating a certain food can bring your grandmother back to life; seeing her standing at the stove and smiling while nurturing you as a child, many years later, that is a plot.

A story is someone dying and someone being born.  It is the story we all know from the book of Ecclesiastes.  A plot is a survivor who fought to save others while living a life that was meant to teach all who would listen, the messages of what he saw and endured, offering the lessons of a life well-lived.  A plot is his great grandchild being brought into the covenant with the Jewish people on his birthday and that his memory, his life-hayim, carries on with the hopes and the blessings that are bestowed upon that child.

We are here to be the radical break that fill in the holes of our loved one’s and our lives.  The Holidays, often, remind us of all that we are missing without our loved ones here.  But Yizkor comes to place that void in its proper setting.  It tells us of all the gifts that we have been given, the richness that has been added to our lives because of having lived in their story while helping to further their plot and, only then do we understand, that our story’s plot is much richer than it was before.

Yizkor is here to tell us that our lives are lived solely as a chain of events, one day divorced from the next, if we cannot live with and better ourselves through memory; create the meaning of today by connecting yesterday with tomorrow.  Forster said that plot requires memory.  A reader in a story needs to remember and connect one event to the next.  Each of us is more than a reader; we are not mere audience members looking to stay sequentially connected to a story.  We are looking to connect the threads of life through our memory, use our actions to to sow meaningful connections to those we loved and who give expression to our lives.  And, then we can remind ourselves, that our story is more than a sequence of events culminating in our death.  Our lives and the lives of our loved ones transcend a single story, and they transcend time when we fill in the spaces that a story too often leaves bare.

Yizkor, as a service, does more than offer you a space to remember a parent, a spouse, a child, a grandparent, a sibling, a friend or the nameless.  It is, also, here to tell us that by remembering we set off a succession of events which remind us that that our story, too, will transcend our death.  And, we say Yizkor so that we know that we have added meaning to the point that preceded it and that the next point of our lives will be lived with a greater sense of purpose, and love.  Memory is why we are here right now.  Pain and sadness, love and joy are what we are recalling.  And in this recall we add depth, we add something more than a pattern or sequence to a life’s arc, but we add feeling and we add ourselves.

May you find meaning in this service.  Use its wisdom and your memory to make the story of this year a better one than last year.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf