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Rabbi Barry Gelman on Yizkor

It was the great Yogi Berra who once said: We are lost, but we are making good time.” 1 The Jewish people, on their way out of Egypt were not lost and they were making good time. In fact, the Torah makes special mention of the fact that the Jewish people left Egypt in a hurry. לֹא־תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל־עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for in haste didst thou come forth out of the land of Egypt; that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life. 2

Many reasons have been given for this rush, one of most insightful by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook.

Rav Kook writes in his commentary on the Haggadah: “The chipazon was at its root God’s idea. It was to create Israel and raise it by circumventing the normal process of development. Every nation develops by natural order, rising to its material and spiritual standard gradually. The great potential that lay dormant in a state of enslavement, the nation materially and spiritually diminished, suddenly, surprisingly, burst forth from potential to reality... Behold! A nation was founded, created in an instant! The main reason was so that the national entity should not be influenced by other cultures" 3 A quick exit was needed, as Rav Kook explains, to make sure that the foundational stage of the Jewish people was not influenced by Egyptian culture. First impressions are very difficult to undo, so God had to take steps to ensure that the founding moment of the Jewish people was a pure one.

The idea that first impressions are so important is expressed by the talmudic statement: "Our Rabbis taught, when a child begins to speak, his father must teach him Torah and Keriat Shema. What is Torah? Rav Hamnuna says: Torah Tziva lanu Moshe Morasha Kehillat Yaakov" 4

As soon as a child is able to speak, the first words we teach express a commitment to Torat Moshe the Torah of Moses.

Similarly, it is customary in many communities, that when taking a child to their first Torah lesson, indicating the ability to learn, that they are first covered in a Tallit and then brought to the school, only then to be uncovered to guarantee that the first thing the child encounters are the letters of the Torah.

Beginnings are very important. The beginning of a nation is crucial as it sets the tone for the future of that nation.

Rav Kook notes another important point here. The future redemption will not be rushed. ִכּ ְ י א ב ִח ָפּ ֵ זוֹן תּ ֵצ ִ אוּ, וּב ְמ ָ נוּס ֵ ה א ת ֵל ִ כוּן: כּיהֵֹל ִ ל ְפנֵ ֶ יכם יְהוָ ְ ה, וּמ ַא ִסּ ְפ ֶכ ֱם א ֵהי יִ ְשָׂר ֵאל. For ye shall not go out in haste, neither shall ye go by flight; for the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rearward.

Once the Jewish people have already received the Torah and the connection to Torah is well established , one need not worry about being washed away in the current of other cultures. This idea has practical application to our lives as Modern Orthodox Jews. We can participate in aspects of the general culture. In many cases, the surrounding climate can enhance our Jewish life. Yet, we must be sure that our participation in broader society is based on the firm foundation and deep roots of Judaism.

We mustn't turn off our Judaism in the workplace or ignore our history in social settings. Every interaction, decision and judgement that we make, must me made by looking through a Jewish lens.

We can relate a well known midrash directly related to our eventual sojourn in Egypt to the importance of setting up a firm foundation before venturing out. While working for Potiphar, Yosef caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife and she made a sexual advance at him. The Torah records that Yosef was able to withstand her charms. In explaining how Yosef found the inner strength to do so, the Gemara in Massechet Sota (36b) states the following. תנא דבי ר' ישמעאל אותו היום יום חגם היה והלכו כולן לבית עבודת כוכבים שלהם והיא אמרה להן חולה היא אמרה אין לי יום שניזקק לי יוסף כיום הזה ותתפשהו בבגדו לאמר וגו' באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו ונראתה לו בחלון אמר לו יוסף עתידין אחיך שיכתבו על אבני אפוד ואתה ביניהם רצונך שימחה שמך מביניהם ותקרא רועה זונות It was taught in the School of R. Ishmael: That day was their feastday, and they had all gone to their idolatrous temple; but she had pretended to be ill because she thought, I shall not have an opportunity like today for Joseph to associate with me. And she caught him by his garment... At that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: 'Joseph, thy brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and thine amongst theirs; is it thy wish to have thy name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots? 5

What a powerful lesson the Rabbis provide in this aggadah. Yosef was able to stand firmly on his foundation and conjure up the image of his father in order to overcome his challenge.

I believe that this teaching is directly related to another rabbinic teaching about the time in Egypt. Our Rabbis tell us that while the Jewish people were in Egypt, surrounded by a foreign culture, they did not change their names, their unique mode of dress or their language. The midrash also tells us that they maintained the practice of Brit Milah (circumcision). How were they able to do that while being in alien culture? I believe the answer lies in the story of Yaakov and the image of his father.

I see a link between Yosef using his father’s image to help him overcome his religious challenge and the ability of the Jewish people to withstand the powerful pull of Egyptian culture. Rabbi Soloveitchik made this point when he said in a speech at the convention of the Mizrarchi Religious Zionist Movement: “Ani Maamin, I believe. What does this Ani Ma’amin say? By straightforward declaration is states: I believe with perfect heart that this Torah is given to be observed, realized and fully carried out in every place and at all times, within every social, economic and cultural framework; in every technological circumstance and every political condition.”

When the foundation is strong, we can survive and even thrive in any situation. Yizkor is a time when we remember those who helped us create and solidify our foundations. We remember parents who set us on our path and supported and nurtured us, We recall siblings who added their unique touch to our story and contributed loving elements of their personality to ours.

Yizkor is a time a recollect spouses who helped us refine and improve ourselves. Of course, we memorialize children who helped us realize our best selves as only children can. This is time to express gratitude to all those present in our minds, even as if they are not present in body. We are grateful for they helped us forge and strengthen who we are. Yizkor is also a Yosef moment. Take a moment to think about an aspect of your personality or life that you can link to someone for whom you are saying Yizkor today. Think about it and be grateful to that person.

Stop and consider…...When your loved one appears to you in the window as Yaakov appeared to Yosef, what would they say and how would it influence you? Picture that person. See them in your mind’s eye.

We stand here praying in memory of loved one, but also in gratitude for the foundation they laid and supported, for the love they gave and continue to give and for being the image we continue to see in our minds us as guides and mentors.