Yizkor and our Yahrtzeit List

Yom Kippur, 5776

One of my weekly discomforts, or to be more transparent, feelings of inadequacy, is when I read the yarhtzeit list.  I am concerned about mispronouncing the names that have not been in use for decades or saying stein when it is actually stein (steen).  But that is the same discomfort many of us have when it is our turn to read aloud during the Passover Seder and we come across a word we have never read before.

But my true feeling of inadequacy comes from saying, “May their memory be for a blessing.”  I mean this, completely; but somehow it feels contrived, and I worry that each of you hears it as such.  I want to know who each of these people was.  The name and the day he or she passed away gives me so little, just enough to know that I am missing out.  I want a little bit of the memories that are stirred when you get the notice in the mail telling you next week is your brother/mother/grandfather’s yahrtzeit.

If I had to choose one reflection to share with all of you on what I have learned over the past fourteen months, it is this:  Our community is bigger, it is far greater than the number of families we have in our database.  Our community occupies the space of the memories we have of those who are no longer physically impacting it.

At several shiva houses we have suspended the customary reading of a passage from the Mishna and chosen instead to have family members share stories and reflections.  They always include the mundane, which is never actually mundane when we are in the realm of our loved ones and their memory.  And they certainly include the weightier reflections.  It is both of these that I am eager to gain; these are what I too often do not have when I call out relatives' and friends' names who are no longer here.

When we think of a name, what does it mean?  And what does that name really mean to us?  When thinking of a name’s meaning, I am reminded of the scene from the movie Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis’ character is running away from the boxing match he was supposed to have lost.  He jumps in a cab and says his name is Butch.  The cabdriver says, “What does your name mean?”  “I am American, honey, my name doesn’t mean anything.”  Our names are everything, not etymologically but because of what we are given through the memory of that person; the memories their name conjures up.

In Judaism our names are significant.  There are entire chapters of the Torah that are comprised solely of names.  Lists of family lines.  When studying Torah, we say, “Oh, it is just a list of people’s names.  What insight into the text can this possibly give us?”  By doing this, by passing over these sections and disregarding them, we are neglecting the memories that were imbued into their names by those who chose to record them.  Instead, we should be asking, we should look to our sages and hevrutot/study partners to decipher "Who were these people?  What kind of lives did they lead?  What legacy did they leave behind that we miss when we skip over their names?  And, in Hebrew, both in the Bible and today, when we do not want to say the holy name of God, Ado‑nai, what do we say, how do we refer to God?  We call God Ha-shem, The Name.  Our tradition, starting from the Torah, is telling us that our names are so much more.

This past week at the JUF luncheon, honoring our dear Frances Horwich, Professor Deborah Lipstadt gave the keynote address.  She mentioned that after the Holocaust two large containers were recovered from the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.  These documents detailed everything that occurred in the day-to-day lives of people trapped within the Ghetto.  This is remarkable considering that these people, these Jews, who were destined to live out their days without dignity, yet saw to it that they may be filled, and remembered, with meaning.  And Prof. Lipstadt told us that the leaders of this group, before burying the container, simply wrote their names on a piece of paper at the top of the box.  Why?  They did not write down biographical details, not their professions or interests; just their names.  Having their names recorded made certain that their memory would live on.  It would have been impossible to write down all the qualities that made up their character; but they had the hope that at least their names will live on, and then, perhaps, someone would be able to figure out who they were and all that we are missing by only having their names.  That is why we have a yahrzeit list.

So let us start there, a name.  I want you to, briefly, turn to the person next to you and tell them the name of the person you are remembering and who they were…  I hope that in coming days, weeks, and years you will turn to me and tell me more than just your loved one’s name.

Now we have a name, and we know where that person falls on our family tree.  That is a good starting point.  But we know we are actually saying the values that we want to be preserved when we say a name.  We know that their worth is more than a place holder in our familial lineage.  When we state someone’s name, the real significance comes from attesting to the values they gave us.  When we name a child after a loved one, we are not just giving them their name, we are giving them the hope that their generosity/their humor/their caring nature will be passed on and that their memory will live on in an eternal way.

This is why the phrase “May their memory be for a blessing” does not work.  We do not want our name or memory to be a blessing  we want their memory to live on within us, and we want to embody all that we loved about them.  When we pass on, we want to know that we mattered, that someone is different because we impacted the person they became.  This is why the words of that phrase fail:  Because we want their memory, and ours, to be more than just a blessing.

We say Yizkor to be moved beyond remembering someone’s name, even to cry, because we know that the loss has not diminished and that how we experience that loss may never be diminished.  We are trying to say that their influence, their impact is playing out in our lives, each and every day.  We are here to remember not someone’s memory but to stand up and recognize that their life has continued.  As we begin Yizkor, we are calling out from the depths of our being to state that we want their influence/impact and, yes, our own memory to be greater than our years, greater than our name.

And with that, I turn it back to each of you.  To acknowledge and to remember that when we call out the names of our loved ones we are saying, “Your life lives on because I am living a life you would be proud of.”  That is the eternal blessing.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf