October 22, 2019

The Light of Memory

Sunday, September 16 was Father’s Day. Though my children remember it’s their responsibility to honor their dad, I often feel the need to create a more celebratory setting – a barbeque or brunch in our backyard, to make sure we gather, together, so we can toast the man of the hour, who not only worked hard to provide for his family, but who also guided and led through his work as rabbi so Judaism would remain central to his children. But this Sunday was also the Yahrzeit of my father, Benyamin HaCohen, a Holocaust survivor, whose youthful innocence and courage forced him to step into a leadership position in his own way, by virtue of his natural born talent to repair any mechanical device. The Nazis, alert to such talent, set him in front of numerous pieces of equipment over the war years (until being put in Dachau), including the infamous Enigma decoding machine. My dad’s skill saved his and some of his closest family members lives. After Shabbat I lit a candle to connect to this unique and special man, being reminded of this humble and loving man. Father’s Day is a mixed blessing as we can celebrate the dads that live as well as remember those that are gone.  

The rabbis, in their wisdom, opened a pathway for memory by using light, the flame of the candle, to ignite the warmth of the past. The burning flame of the Yahrzeit candle, lit on the anniversary of the passing of our loved ones, dances in front of our eyes reminding us of beautiful memories of shared moments, of the goodness and love that was showered upon us during our lifetime. The very first thing created by G-d was light, the supernal spiritual light that represents goodness, and each soul has a spark of this Divine light. In fact, Proverbs 20 states the “The soul of man is a candle for G-d.” Every soul lights the way for Divine goodness. It is a reminder that G-d needs us as much as we need G-d.

It is believed by some that by lighting the Yahrzeit candle we participate in the soul’s continual travels through the next world. In fact, a deeper look at the flame reveals multiple layers and colors. The glow of the black, orange and blue, often visible when we focus on its brilliance, has been aligned with the three parts of the soul, Nefesh (body), Ruach (mind) and N’shama (spirit). The powerful flame brings our own being into wholeness, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, touching us in a way that warms every part of our being. The resplendent flame also encourages continual action in this world so the departed soul will rise and ascend upward to the heavenly realm. It is believed that through our own acts of mitzvot and Torah study, we both atone for the departed soul (if needed) and gives pleasure to the soul, as Proverbs 13 reminds us, “Light of the righteous rejoice.”

The tiniest flame can light the largest space. The power of light, reflected in the beauty of the flame, enhances a moment in time and fills us with an inner glow. The Jewish calendar provides four times during the year for Yahrzeit rituals and each individual adds a 5th a personal and intimate moment on the anniversary of the soul’s departing so that we can continue to stay connected with those we loved and feel blessed for their presence in our lives.