What is Yizkor?

If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain

Questions, not Answers


I am one of a group of rabbis who post on Kol Isha (Voice of the Woman), the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Today was my day to post, and so I’m going to direct you over there for today’s thoughts on Questions, not Answers.

Honestly, after writing that one, I’m all out of words.

“Baruch Dayan Emet” – Why Do We Bless God When Someone Dies?

Angel of Grief - Hill Family
Angel of Grief (Photo credit: Mike Schaffner)

The traditional Jewish response to news of a death, any death, is “Baruch Dayan emet,” “Blessed is the true Judge.”

Here are some reasons for this ritual:

1. If there is a ritual formula to say when I get shocking news, I am less likely to say something inappropriate.  Death is solemn, and even when it is expected, it can be a shock. People say stupid things when they are shocked. Having a script for the first few moments can be very helpful.

2. The statement acknowledges that I do not know the sum of that person’s life. I am not qualified to stand in judgment upon them. By saying that only God is so qualified, I either affirm faith that God is the only true judge, or (if I am not a believer in a personal God) I acknowledge that only God, if there were such a person, can sit in judgment.

3. Making a statement of humility (“I cannot judge”) reminds me not to say something stupid with my next words.

4. If the death is tragic or inexplicable, it is a way of saying, “I do not understand how this could have happened” without starting a conversation about the possibilities. It keeps us away from platitudes that might get in the way of healthy grief, or other statements that might be unhelpful to the mourners.

5. The longer form of the blessing appears first in the Mishnah Berachot 9:2 (“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, ruler of the Universe, who is the True Judge.” We are told in that Mishnah that this is a blessing to say at the reception of any bad news. Rabbi Louis Rieser teaches that this is a way of acknowledging the Presence of God at a moment of high emotion, when we are most overwhelmed by loss.

6. The moment of death is a time when no words suffice, but we human beings are relentless with our words. By providing a simple ritual of humility with many possible interpretations, Jewish tradition gives us a container for our words at a time when they can do terrible harm. There is no need to say anything more, after “Baruch Dayan emet” – ultimately it says, I have no words for this. We stand with the mourner or stand as a mourner in the presence of the greatest mystery of life, and with these words clear the way for the long process of grief.

Nine Eleven Again

English: A lit Yahrtzeit candle, a candle that...

What is there left to say about the events of 9/11/2001?

If you knew someone, remember them.

If any of my readers would like to post memories of people who died that day or in the events that have followed since, I invite you to do so in the comments.

Please do not use this space for political statements. I will delete them.

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the high places, provide a secure rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence… to the souls of all those who died that day and as a consequence to that day…  Amen.

What is Tisha B’Av?

English: Excavated stones from the Western Wal...
English: Excavated stones from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Jerusalem), knocked onto the street below by Roman battering rams in 70 C.E. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Tisha B’Av is a Jewish fast day.
  • Tisha B’Av means “Ninth of Av.”
  • In 2013, Tisha B’Av will begin on July 15 at sundown and continue until sundown on July 16.
  • On Tisha B’Av, observant Jews fast and read the Book of Lamentations.
  • On Tisha B’Av we remember disasters that have befallen the Jewish People, especially the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era.
  • The Temple was destroyed by the armies of Rome, but Jewish tradition says that the Temple was destroyed on account of “baseless hatred” among Jews against one another.

For more about Tisha B’Av, check out these articles in MyJewishLearning.com and The Virtual Jewish Library.

Prayer of the Broken Heart

English: Women with Broken Heart

How is one to pray with a broken heart?

Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately  need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.

There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths.  That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”

A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?

The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.

In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:

  • Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
  • We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
  • We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
  • We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
  • Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
  • With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
  • Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.

Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?