An acquaintance of mine recently fell ill, and his condition deteriorated rapidly. I began to examine my feelings about this person, who had caused a great deal of pain for his family members whom I cherish. When I imagined his funeral, I couldn’t help but wonder, how do we bury someone who caused such tsuris? How do we lay a caring blanket of earth? How do we mourn? With each passing Yizkor or remembrance ceremony, how do we memorialize both those who brought love and joy into our lives and those who brought conflict and sorrow?
The Yizkor ceremony that will be recited tomorrow during Shabbat services is quite simple. A psalm or two are said and a formulaic paragraph is recited in memory of the departed, imploring God to recall the memory of the deceased.
The Hebrew text of the prayer contrasts with the English translation found in most prayer books. The English translation, in which we pledge charity in memory of the deceased, is a pledge of “loving testimony,” where memory “conquers death’s dominion and where we are strengthened by the blessing which [the departed] left us, by precious memories which comfort and sustain us.”
And yet, not all of those whom we remember evoke precious memories. Each of us can likely name someone whose memory it pains us to recall. Should these people not also be remembered? The true power of Yizkor is not in only calling to mind those whom we remember lovingly. Yizkor is a moment for recollection, and it is a tool, a means, a process, the power of which lies not on the page of our prayer book but in each of us; a single point for remembering those by whom we were shaped and even hurt.
Yizkor is a tikkun, an act of repair wherein we pledge to improve this world through our deeds. Love and pain, which are present in all human relationships, are transmuted for the betterment of our surrounding lives.
Tomorrow, in synagogue, on Zoom, or in the privacy of your thoughts, recall those who brought joy and reflect upon those whose lives brought sorrow. In those memories may we pledge to make repair in the land of the living. May all those who are remembered find lasting peace.