Every Year Coming to Yizkor by Rabbi Janet Madden
Every year now, in the midst of apples and honey and family recipes and the sweet new beginnings of Rosh HaShanah, I am already looking ahead to Yom Kippur, thinking of the first Yizkor book in which my mother’s name was included and the first Yizkor service in which I, too, was among those mourning a parent. Every Rosh HaShanah reminds me, again, of how every year since that first year, the High Holy Days have been connected to her yahrzeit and private, personal mourning and memories and to the first Yizkor service of the new year. Every High Holy Days brings me the opportunity to remember and mourn publicly, with those newly-bereaved, as I was that year, and with those who have learned, as I have, that there is a beautiful balance between sadness and comfort when we acknowledge our griefs in community.
Of course, I knew long before my mother’s death that the ten days of the Yamin Noramim—the Days of Awe—are filled with reminders of the brevity and uncertainty of life. The liturgies of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur reiterate the reality of our mortality. The Unatana tokef prayer, especially, uses graphic images to remind us of our reality: that even as we wish one another to be inscribed and sealed for a good year, we really have no idea what sorrows and joys await us. But the year that she was diagnosed and we were told that she would not survive more than a few months—and in fact died within weeks—was the first Rosh HaShanah that I had just buried a loved one, and, I think, the first time I understood the Unatana tokef.
Every year since that year, the High Holy Days make me more aware, again, of mortality. Of course, they are supposed to. The High Holy Days are intended to be awesome; they are infused with a sense of urgency that encourages us to not engage in denial, to not postpone, to not avoid difficult conversations and decisions. In heightening our awareness that life ends and that there is never enough time, the process of engaging in teshuvah—of turning, returning and being turned—is intended to disrupt us, to wake us up and shake us out of complacency. The High Holy Days push us to reflect on life’s big questions: who we are, what our purpose is, what our lives mean, how we want to be remembered.
For me, the season of the High Holy Days is also the time that I turn over garden soil, harvest the last of summer crops, plant winter vegetables, and rake up feathers from my molting chickens. I think of this as a naturally pensive time, the turning of the seasons reminding me that I’ve lived through another year and that so many have not. The timing of the High Holy Days means that the natural world itself reinforces the theme of turning and returning: summer has ended, the daylight is changing, leaves are turning colors and falling from trees, the Autumnal Equinox—which this year, in the Northern Hemisphere, took place on the second day of Rosh HaShanah—momentarily balances day and night as exact equals. I like to think of the Yom Kippur Yizkor, the first Yizkor of the year, as the liturgical equivalent of the Autumnal Equinox: the opportunity to balance sorrow with consolation, the past with the present, regret with hope, private remembrances with public commemoration. Perhaps that is the reason why even those who otherwise eschew synagogue attendance show up for Yizkor—because grieving alone is painful and grieving together to reminds us that so long as there is a Jewish community we are not alone.
Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.
[Ed. Note: We at Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute hope that your holiday season – for those who celebrate – was meaningful and uplifting, and that you have been inscribed and sealed for a good, sweet year full of blessings. To those who engage in the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the broadest sense be granted additional blessings for their participation in this holy endeavor and sacred labor. — JB]
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