Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place during the week after the Passover holiday. It is the day when Jews mourn not only the people they knew – each year there are, sadly, less people who knew Holocaust victims personally – but those whose descendants' blood cries out to mankind from the depths of the earth (see Genesis 4.6, G-d's words to Cain after the murder of Abel).
Holocaust Remembrance Day means Israel's IDF and Terror Victims Memorial Day will soon be here. For bereft Israeli families, the solemn, sincere nationwide sadness adds ceremonial and communal recognition to the mourning that fills every day of their lives. Their loved one's unborn descendants' blood cries out from the earth as well.
The Jews are a people who, in the midst of making the most of life, take the time to remember.
They remember the Holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the destruction of the Temples, Pharaoh and Amalek.
They remember the Fogels and the Henkins, the Hatuels, the children of Maalot, the passengers on the coastal road and so many others whose lives were cut short by bestial acts of terror.
They remember the thousands of sweet faced soldiers who left home with their rifles held straight and tall and did not return, because everyone in Israel knew someone who will never grow old.
And four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Passover and Shavuot, Jews take part in poignant and introspective remembrance of a different kind, the kind that makes for continuity. It is then that a special memorial prayer brings even Jews who ordinarily never attend a synagogue to take part in the service that memorializes each one's parents. They do this along with the entire congregation of Israel – not on their parents' yahrzeit (Yiddish for date of death), but on the above listed collective dates on which Jews honor deceased parents together, as a people, as well as close relatives. This is followed by collective remembrance of Jewish martyrs, Holocaust victims, fallen IDF soldiers and members of other armed forces during the same service.
One word connects this entire gamut of memory, "Yizkor." Literally, a call to G-d to remember the souls of those we have lost and the first word of the centuries-old memorial prayer. It is said at the Holocaust Remembrance opening ceremony, at the IDF Memorial Day opening ceremony and in the synagogue on the days parents are memorialized.
The minutes preceding the Yizkor prayer are a time for meditation, internal reminiscence, longing and introspection. In many synagogues, the rabbi uses those minutes to add meaning to those feelings, to talk about the place that memories of departed loved ones have in our lives, affecting our choices, influencing the way we guide our families and how we meet challenges.
Koren Publishers, Jerusalem has recently published Memory and Meaning: Essays by Rabbi Norman Lamm, which contains 19 of the Yizkor sermons given by the venerable, longtime Chancellor of Yeshiva University (1976-2013) and rabbi of the Jewish Center of New York, a renowned Torah scholar and inspired and eloquent darshan (orator). The sermons are edited by Joel B. Wolowelsky and prefaced with remarks by former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who considers Rabbi Lamm someone who changed his life. The book begins with a beautiful and heart-wrenching hesped (eulogy) for Rabbi Lamm's daughter, Sara Lamm Dratch, by her husband Mark Datch.
For some of us, the word sermon conjures up memories of fidgeting and looking at one's watch. That is not the case here. Rabbi Lamm's talks are interesting, carefully constructed essays about finding life's messages and meanings through Torah, written in an easy-to-read flowing style. These are wise prescriptions for life that can be read and re-read at any time, but are especially fitting to take to the synagogue on the days on which Yizkor is said or on a yahrzeit. (The Yizkor service in Hebrew and English appears at the end of the book as do the prayers said at the cemetery and there is even a place to record family members' yahrzeits or for synagogue memorial lists.)
That is just what I did this year, having received the book a few days before the holiday. On the last day of Pesach, after saying Yizkor for my parents while my children said the same prayer for their late father, I read the sermon on Rabbi Lamm's grandfather to the family at our yom tov meal. The teenagers, every one of them, became totally absorbed in the dramatic description of the Gemara learning sessions that bridged the generation gap between the boy and his grandfather. Silence reigned for several minutes after I finished reading as they recalled, they told me afterwards, their own grandfather's love of learning. They asked for other insights and I read them parts of other chapters (that I had chosen beforehand, hoping they would want me to go on…).
One doesn't need more than the above example to understand that this beautifully written book adds many levels of meaning to the Yizkor prayer and why it is a good choice to give to those who have recently lost a loved one, at a time when other gifts are inappropriate but when one does want to give something that provides lasting comfort.
The opening essays on every individual's potential and on doing right by oneself are, for those sitting shiva, a reminder of their own self worth during this difficult period of adapting to loss, sorrow and the inability to make up for lost opportunities.
Describing the lad who runs to get the arrows in the biblical story of David and Jonathan, Rabbi Lamm writes:
"Whether we are anonymous lads, playing a supporting role in some great drama, or shabbily dressed train conductors directly guiding the destiny of hundreds…through life, we must be aware of our importance in the eyes of G-d and those who shall come after us."
Analyzing the Yizkor prayer, he speaks the essence of Jewish mourning:
"As we recite Yizkor, we affirm that each individual is the immortal concern of the eternal Creator…we each are endowed with the power to employ our distinctiveness, our uniqueness…
"No feverish activity can change the past...We just utter a few words and in the silent privacy of our own hearts offer a prayer and reunite in stillness with our cherished memories. This wordless rendezvous with the past, with our roots, with our parents and our loved ones, can only enlarge and refine us…"
And as we enter the season of national Jewish remembrance and personal longing for those who will always be sorely missed, the insights in this aptly named book can provide the infinite dimensions of Torah light encapsulated in the word "YIzkor."