A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma

Remembering our beloveds as we linger a little longer

YahrzeitShemini Atzeret: "the pause of the 8th day." The day after Sukkot, when the Holy Blessed One murmurs in our ear, "Don't go just yet. Don't leave this bower where we've spent this past week. Linger a little longer with Me."

Shemini Atzeret: the day when we shift, in our daily amidah, from blessing God Who brings the dew to blessing God Who brings the wind and the rain. (And in this climate zone, eventually, the ice and the snow.) On this day we recite a special prayer for rain.

Shemini Atzeret: another opportunity to say the prayers of Yizkor, the liturgy of remembrance which recite as we remember our beloved dead. Of course, many of us just said Yizkor. There was a Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, a scant twelve days ago. Why are we reciting Yizkor again so soon?

Well. Like anything else in Judaism, there is a multiplicity of answers. But here's an answer which speaks to me.

We say the prayers of Yizkor four times a year. I follow the tradition which maps these four Yizkor services to the four seasons: Pesach – springtime. Shavuot – summertime. Autumn – Yom Kippur. Winter – Shemini Atzeret. Granted, Shemini Atzeret isn’t during the wintertime (especially not this year.) But some sources suggest that the fourth instance of Yizkor was originally meant to happen at midwinter. Because arduous winter travel could keep people from making it to Jerusalem to gather for this remembrance, the sages of our tradition moved the wintertime Yizkor to this "extra day" at the end of Sukkot. It's a kind of vestigial winter observance, almost hidden amidst Sukkot's palm fronds and hospitality.

Each of the four Yizkor services during the year has a different valance, a different feeling-tone. During the springtime Pesach Yizkor, I feel most connected with my grandparents. My grandmother Alice, aleha l'shalom, died shortly before Pesach one year, and her loss was immediate and palpable. My experience of Pesach is always intertwined with the memory of her death.

The Shavuot Yizkor comes at the start of summer, as we're moving into the season of real warmth and fruitfulness where I live. Shavuot is a time of bringing first fruits before God. Maybe that's why the Shavuot Yizkor feels to me like a time to bring the metaphysical harvest of my winter and spring before my beloveds who are gone.

During the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, everything feels heightened: the skies a bit too bright, my heart a bit too raw. Fasting and praying all day (and doing so on my feet all day!) can take me into a kind of altered state. Often the veil between my life and their memories seems most transparent on that day when, tradition teaches, our world is closest to God's perfection.

And then there's today's Yizkor. Of today's Yizkor, Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes, "On Sh'mini Atzeret we remember the dead in yizkor and then pray for water. Is our water prayer a plea for drops of rain alone — or also for tears, the ability to cry? Tears less exalted than those of Yom Kippur, less frightened than those of Tisha B'Av — but tears of memory and compassion?"

In the image I chose to accompany this post, hands are cupped around a memorial candle, cradling its flame. Sometimes that's how Yizkor feels to me: as though we are cupping our hands around the flame of memory, protecting it from the winds which might blow the candle out. In my hemisphere the days are growing shorter. It seems a fitting time to go inward, to find a still point in my own heart, and from that place of stillness to call out to those I have known and loved who are gone.

In "A Meditation / Kavanah for Yizkor," Reb Simcha Raphael writes:

Jewish tradition, in its wisdom, teaches us that between the world of the living and the world of the dead is a window and not a wall. Raised in a culture of scientific materialism, many of us have been led to believe that dead is dead, and after death, the channels of communication between us and our loved ones who have died are forever ended - a brick wall! But, like the rituals of Shiva, Kaddish, and Yahrzeit, Yizkor opens windows to the unseen worlds of the dead. Yizkor creates a sacred space and time wherein we can open our hearts and minds to the possibility of a genuine inter-connection with beloved family members and friends who have left behind the world of the living. Yizkor is a window. Prepare to open that window.

(That prayer can be found in this list of OHALAH resources for Yizkor.) My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi speaks of Yizkor as a "holy Skype call" — an opportunity to go inside, perhaps draped beneath one's tallit, and call up the memory of the person we have lost, and imagine them before us face-to-face, and say whatever it is that we most need to say to that person right here, right now.

As the winds whip the schach from the roofs of our sukkot, as we prepare to batten down the emotional and spiritual hatches for winter's approach, what do you need to say to your loved ones who have left this life? What would it feel like to believe that in some inchoate way, they are really here; they can really hear you?