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Reconnecting with those loved and lost

“Not long ago I was one of those young people who automatically left shul for the mysterious Yizkor. Now I have joined that exclusive group that has parted with a parent. It’s sobering to be reminded that everyone standing outside still has their parents,” says Chaya S*.

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Religion

ELIANA CLINE

With Shavuot this coming week, many – like Chaya S – are reminded that this is one of four times a year that they get to say Yizkor, when only those who stay inside have lost a loved one.

For some, Yizkor is the number one reason they attend shul on Yom Kippur. Yizkor is also said on the last days of the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. 

The word yizkor means to remember; the Yizkor service is a time-honoured way for people to remember close family members who have passed away.

Yizkor comprises two components. The first is a prayer in the name of the deceased. The second and main component is the private pledge to give charity following the holiday, in honour of the deceased.

The poignancy of Yizkor makes it an emotionally evocative experience for many. It also offers a profound and tangible connection to their loved ones.

“I haven’t missed Yizkor in over 20 years. I am not a big shul-goer, but Yizkor is important. It’s hard and painful, but there is comfort in it. It’s saying that no matter how many years pass, we still love and honour and miss their souls,” says Leanne Silver.

 “It is a beautiful gift, time carved out during the prayer service on Yomtov for deep connection, recollection and acknowledgement of my parents. During Yizkor my parents feel close to me, they glow large in my heart and I know I am still their child, a product of their love, sweat and tears,” says Wendy Hendler.

Some appreciate that there is a designated time to feel close to the departed within the cycle of the Jewish year.

“The first time was very painful. On the other hand, it’s nice to have something concrete to do. It’s something that connects us to a world that we have no access to. After the seven days of mourning, you have to remember this person in your own time,” says Yoni Matthers.

“It reconnects me with my parents and my late brother who died fighting for Israel, to whom I was very close. I think about them right through the year, but more deeply at Yizkor time. Then we go back to our regular days; you can’t grieve all the time,” says Naomi C.

For others, Yizkor is a painful encounter with the stark reality of loss.

“I lost my dad at a very young age, and lost my mom when I was older. It’s a really hard experience watching everyone leave shul and seeing that you are one of the youngest people there. I have never really understood the meaning of Yizkor; I don’t go by choice; I find it really draining,” says Klara Diamond.

The communal aspect is also significant – the sense of solidarity can be sobering and comforting.

“There is feeling of togetherness with all the people around me that stay in the shul,” says Naomi C.

Yizkor, however, is far more profound than remembering loved ones. What is the source of this mysterious and moving service? Rooted in the ashes of destruction, the service offers a deep insight to the purpose of mankind. 

Origins of Yizkor
Yizkor originated in the 11th century following the devastation of Rhineland Jewry during the Crusades in Germany. In the aftermath, Hazkarat Neshamot (Commemoration of the Souls) emerged as a communal ritual on Yom Kippur, remembering the mass destruction.

The Polish Jews extended its recital from Yom Kippur to include the last days of the three festivals. Yizkor was gradually transformed into a ritual to remember and redeem souls of deceased loved ones and became formalised into the holiday liturgy. Yizkor remains an Ashkenazi tradition; the majority Sephardic synagogues do not say this prayer. 

A spiritual gift to the departed
Beyond the psychologically stirring dimension, Yizkor is founded on the fundamental Jewish belief that the soul is eternal and that the living can elevate the soul of the departed.

Even though one’s ability to grow spiritually ends once the soul leaves the body, the living – particularly children – have the ability to enhance the condition of a departed soul in the afterlife through good deeds and prayer.

The central element of Yizkor is the commitment to give charity. By giving charity, we are performing a positive, physical deed in this world which is something that the departed can no longer do. The soul then gains additional merit as loved ones have been inspired to do good in their memory.

Yizkor is an opportunity for living relatives to have a positive spiritual impact on the soul of a departed loved one.

In this context, Yizkor is far more than a ritual or prayer. For those saying Yizkor, understanding its depth makes it an intensely meaningful and affirming experience.

“I re-evaluate myself in terms of whether the life I am living honours them, what they stood for and taught me, the values they worked so hard to imbue within me,” says Wendy Hendler. “I pray that my actions are fit to allow their souls to rise to a higher plane of existence in the world of truth, closer to the Divine Presence.

“I recommit to living in greater alignment with the mitzvot, to strengthen my connection to Hashem and His mitzvot and to giving tzedakah in the knowledge that it is only through the actions of their children that my beloved parents’ neshomos can become elevated each year. It is an awesome responsibility and a labour of love,” she says.

While painful and solemn, Yizkor is a beautiful and eternal gift from your soul in this world, to the soul of your loved one, in the next world and an awesome reminder of what is eternal. 

*Some of the names have been changed as the people did not want to be identifi

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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Religion

My kind of hero

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The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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Religion

Learning to fall teaches us to fly

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“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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