Maharat Ruth Balinsky on Yizkor

The first time I said yizkor I was seven years old, shortly after my mother died. I was old enough to know how to read Hebrew, and old enough to know that yizkor was a very important part of the service, so it made sense for me to be there. I have said it every yontiv since, inserting my mom’s name into the service.

But, even though I have said it so many times, I struggled to connect to it. For a lot of my life I approached yizkor the same way the simple child asks his question at the seder. Mah zot? What is this? What are you doing? I looked around at my community of fellow yizkor sayers, seeing the emotion, and the pain, that they experienced during the service. But then I looked down at the page, seeing the one main paragraph in which I asked God to protect my mother’s soul in heaven, and I didn’t really understand how one paragraph could create such a moving and powerful service for those reciting it. I didn’t feel moved by the words.

And so, I asked others what they looked for in a yizkor service. One of the people I asked is my grandmother. My grandmother has suffered horrific loss in her life that I would never wish upon anyone - the loss of a lot of her family in the holocaust, and then within a span of ten years, two husbands, and then a daughter, my mom. How does a woman who has experienced such profound personal tragedy find comfort?

She responded with one word - memories. Memories, she said, are what keeps her going. They are what brings her joy. She may have lost a lot, she said, but she uses her memories of the past to sustain her in the present. And yizkor in particular is a time for her to connect to those memories.

What does it mean to remember? The Hebrew word for remembering is zechira, which of course shares the same root as yizkor. Within the context of the yontiv service, yizkor is the point when we pause and ask God to remember the souls of our loved ones who are no longer with us, and we pledge to give tzedakah in their merit. Even though the request is for God to remember them we of course remember them as well.

The idea of remembering, of zechira, appears in a halachic question about the seder that many rabbis have addressed over time. They argue that the mitzvah of seder night presents a bit of a challenge to us. As we see articulated in the Rambam, there is a special mitzvah on the seder night to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Mitzvat aseh shel Torah lesaper b'nisim v'niflaot sh'na'ahsu l'avoteinu b'mitzrayim
There is a positive commandment from the Torah to tell of the miracles and wonders which our ancestors experienced in Egypt

Now, this may seem obvious to many of us. That is the whole point of the seder! To tell the story of the Exodus. However, as many note, one could argue that this mitzvah is superfluous. Why? Because we already have a mitzvah to remember the exodus every single night! Many of us recall one of the best known segments of the maggid section of the haggadah, which is a mishna in Berachot. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says “I am like a seventy year old man, yet I did not succeed in proving that the Exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night - until Ben Zoma explained, In order that you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life - l’ma’an tizkor et yom tzeitcha m’eretz mitzrayim kol yemei chayecha. If this verse had only meant the days, it would have said yemei chayeicha - KOL yemei chayecha includes the nights as well.

What do we see in this mishna? We see that there is already a commandment to remember the exodus every night of the year! So what does it mean to have a mitzvah to tell the story of the exodus on the seder night? We already do that every day and night of the year!

Therefore, it must be that this sippur, this telling, is fundamentally different than remembering, because we would not have a redundant mitzvah. It must mean something else.

In order to answer this, I turn to the writing of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik - the Rav. In Shiurim l’zecher Avi Mori - a series of lectures that the Rav gave on his father’s yortzeit every year - he has a piece entitled Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim - Telling the story of the exodus. In it he explores our very question - what is the difference between zechira and sippur, between remembering and telling? I want to focus on one particular point of his, that he articulates in the conclusion. As the Rav tells us there, what is the purpose of sippur yetziat mitzrayim? It is to see ourselves as though we left Egypt - b’chol dor va dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza m’mitzrayim. The goal of the seder is not to race through maggid and make sure we say every word and then we eat. The goal of maggid is to serve as a template for which we tell the story in a way that each and every person at the seder is transported back in time to feel as though they themselves were the one to leave Egypt. We go so deeply to the point, the Rav says, that we could each stand before a beit din, a rabbinic court, and testify to our experience. That, the Rav says, is what it means to tell the story of Exodus from Egypt.

Now, many of us know this already. That on the night of the seder we are supposed to see ourselves as though we left Egypt, and that we tell ourselves the story in order to reach that point. In order to really appreciate what the Rav is saying, I want to think about this concept of sippur in contrast to zechira, to remembering the exodus from Egypt.

As we said, we have a mitzvah to remember the exodus every night. We do so in the last line of the shema - Ani Hashem Elokeichim asher hotzayti etchem m’eretz Mitzrayim l’hiot lachem l’elohim. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. We say this every night, in addition to the shema in the morning, and many other references to the exodus throughout the day. It is an experience that is inseparable from what it means to be Jewish. One cannot teach Judaism, one cannot understand Judaism, without understanding the powerful significance of our identity as a people of God whom God redeemed from slavery.

And yet, we recognize that these constant references to the Exodus are not sufficient for us to really maintain this collective identity. In order to sustain it, we need one night a year - for us, two nights a year - in which we not only remember the story, but we tell the story, to the point where we are transported out of our seats, and out of our homes, back into the exodus itself. We need to have the seder every year in order to sustain our ability to remember it in passing the rest of the year. If we didn’t, then our daily references to the exodus wouldn’t mean anything - they would just be words. We need to relive it every year in order to really appreciate what we say the rest of the time.

This model of sippur versus zechira has helped me understand my relationship with yizkor. Those who have lost members of our family gather together to remember them, and pray on their behalf. Of course that does not mean that we only think of them four times a year. We remember them every day, just like we remember the exodus every day through zechirah. Some of us hear a funny story, and wish we could share it with the person they lost. I’m sure that some of us made recipes the past week that brought back a rush of memories of family seders with relatives who are no longer living. Those of us who only had our loved ones in our lives for a brief period of time may only have a few solid memories. But that does not mean that they are not always a part of us, just like I am told that I have a lot of my mom’s personality, and that I look so much like her. We all carry people we have lost deep within us.

But, as yizkor teaches us, we are not passive in remembering. At certain points throughout the year, we become active in this process. On holidays, often when we miss our loved ones the most, we have an actual service for the purpose of remembering them, just like we have a Pesach seder to tell the story of the Exodus. And, in that sense, yizkor is the sippur stage of our memories - it is a time when we step out of the selves that we are for the rest of the year, and we focus on the memories, and the relationships, that we have with those we’ve lost.

There’s only one problem with this comparison - yizkor is called yizkor, remembering, and not yisaper, or telling. Yizkor is a powerful, emotional service. For some of us, it is enough to say it. It is too hard to do more. But, for those of us who feel ready, and prepared, I encourage us to take it a step further. I think back to the haggadah, to the paragraph of avadim hayinu. After we declare that we were slaves to Par’oh in Egypt, we say v’afiulu kulanu chachamim, kulanu nevonim, kulani zekeinim, kulanu yod’im et ha torah - mitzvah aleinu lesaper b’yitziat mitztrayim. Even if we are all wise, even if we all know the whole Torah, it is still a mitzvah for all of us to tell the story of the exodus. We all still must participate in telling the story of our people. And, more importantly, kol ha marbeh l’saper b’yitziat mitzrayim harei ze meshubach - anyone who adds to the telling of the story of the Exodus is praised, just as the Rav said.

The same is true for yizkor. We all remember those we’ve lost. We all have some kind of a relationship with them. And that sustains us during the year. But, through yizkor, we can do more. We can add to the way we remember, to step off the page of the siddur, just like the rabbis encourage us to step off of the page of the haggadah, and use our memories to craft our own yizkor experience. That is what was missing in my understanding of yizkor for many years.

So before we recite yizkor today I encourage all of us to stop. Think of one memory of the person. Where were you? What happened? What did it feel like? What part of it do you take with you to this day? Tell the story of this person. Some of us may even want to take it a step further, and share a memory at lunch, or another time in the future. When we do that we make the story of our lives, and of their lives, a living story, just like we make the story of the Exodus a living story at the seder.