Yizkor: the meaning of memory

  • Parshas Ki Tetze - Rabbi Yossi Goldman
For those who believe in the terrible finality of death, once someone has left physical life behind, it’s dead and buried and the proverbial nail in the coffin puts the seal of finality on it. Case closed. Gone, and soon forgotten.
by Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul | Oct 08, 2020

But we Jews have never believed that life ends with the grave. Physical life may have indeed ended but spiritual life never ends. The soul leaves the body, but as a spark of G-dliness, it, too, is immortal and simply moves on to a higher sphere of existence.

Belief in the afterlife is intrinsically connected to the 13 principles of Jewish faith. Reward and punishment are enshrined as a cardinal doctrine, and the rabbis long ago determined that this takes place not in this physical world but in the world to come.

Yizkor means “remember”. We pray that Hashem remembers our departed loved ones. At the same time, we pledge tzedakah in their memory. The Yizkor service takes place in shul on Yom Kippur, and we will also recite it in shul on Shemini Atzeret, this Shabbos, as well as on the last day of Pesach and second day of Shavuot.

Once upon a time, shuls would be packed out for Yizkor. Just the word “yizkor” would send a tremor down Jewish spines. Today, this seems to be limited to those who understand its meaning and symbolism.

Still, Yizkor does have a special place in many Jews’ consciousness even today. Rabbis usually address their congregations just before Yizkor, and that sermon is often more emotional than most, with a touching story to help get people in the right frame of mind for a memorial prayer.

The basic idea behind Yizkor is that even departed souls can be elevated by our good deeds. They cannot perform mitzvahs any longer. The time for action is in this world when the soul is still clothed in a body. But if we do a good deed here in their memory, it’s as if they did it themselves, and it can assist them in reaching a higher state of peace and bliss in the world to come. This is tremendously comforting for us. By invoking their names and pledging tzedakah in their memory, we become the virtual embodiment of their souls.

Then, too, we may also pray that the souls of our loved ones entreat the heavenly tribunal on our behalf. We hope that when we remember them, they will put in a good word for us where it counts. They are, after all, closer to “head office”, so to speak.

Finally, by remembering the dead, we ourselves focus on more profound matters than empty materialism and the usual everyday nonsense. Appreciating our own mortality can be a sobering experience. Reflecting on the theme of life and death makes us more pensive, philosophical, and sombre, thereby reaching a deeper level of awareness and spiritual consciousness.

May our remembrances this yom tov be meaningful for us here and for our loved ones above.

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