This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is adapted from the Yizkor Memorial service sermon on Passover 5777 of Rabbi Joshua Caruso. We encourage you, if you wish, to share comments below, to share the link with others, or to post the sermon, titled “Extending an Everlasting Invitation to our Dear Ones” to social media and extend its teaching to others.
There is a reason Yizkor comes around four times a year (on the three pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur) during the holidays and holy days. These are times when family gathers for time-honored traditions. We remember those days, like it was yesterday, when our spouse, parent, sibling, and our children sat with us to recite the blessings, hear the chants, and sing the songs. And sometimes the memories come vividly alive.
My dad wasn’t Jewish, but his words, his touch, his laugh, and even his platitudes remain palpably with me during these holy days. Indeed, I must tell you that his life is more than memory to me – it’s alive and well in my words and in my actions. His life is a piece of art, imperfectly so. I carry his canvas with me, and when I look at it I find something new each time. But it requires that I invite him to join me on this journey, and then I can feel it – feel him – and he is with me. I must, however, issue the invitation.
And that is what Yizkor is…an invitation for our loved one to join us in this life.
And perhaps the hardest days are the ones when we don’t say Yizkor. The random Tuesday or Thursday with nothing on the calendar but a blank canvas of loss. And the other days, the life cycle events (the graduation, the birthday, the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah, and of course the wedding), these days cut us deep, because our guest list is left undone; an RSVP has not been answered. And yet, we must extend the invitation for them to be a part of our lives.
The longtime comic, Don Rickles, recently died after a long life, but behind all of the wisecracking and insulting, was a person – like you and I – who felt the feelings, cried the tears, and carried the memories that one does to remember a loved one.
Rickles lost his father when he was in his late twenties, but he was very much connected to a community that supported him during those hard times, especially his cantor. Rickles really loved his cantor. On a recent interview on NPR, Rickles shared the following:
…my cantor, who was the man who I always – he had that – what we call a hazzan voice. It had a wailing sound that always chilled me, and I loved him for it. And so every time he sang, I really felt really emotional about him. He was very dear friends with my father, and my father passed away…kind of young, at 55. And he knew my father, as I said, very well.
Rickles then proceeds to tell the story the day before his wedding, when he and his cousin were in the hotel. He received a surprising and unlikely call in the middle of the night…from his cantor.
And so we were in the hotel, and the phone rang. And it was the cantor. He said you and Allen, come on downstairs. I said Cantor, its 4 o’clock in the morning. He said, will you please come downstairs? And I came downstairs. He said, get in the car. I want to take you someplace…I knew him well. So I said, it must be important. And sure enough, we wound up at the cemetery where my father was. And he took off his suit jacket, put on a white shawl and a high, white cantor’s hat. And he sang “El malei rachamim,” which is a prayer for the dead and then said a special prayer inviting my father to the wedding.
Indeed, it is an old-time European tradition to visit the grave of a loved one just before one’s wedding, accompanied by the belief that part of the soul of the righteous Jew remains at the cemetery, hovering just above the gravestone. When we visit it is our way of recovering a little part of them. It is our way of saying that they are not forgotten, and that their memories and spirits inhabit our lives in seasons of joy and moments of challenge.
Rickles’ story about his cantor’s gesture speaks to this moment of Yizkor more than any other. Isn’t that what we want from those we’ve loved? To invite our dear ones to our holiday dinners, our weddings, our life cycle events, our Seders? Just like Elijah the Prophet we make a place for them; if not a place-setting, then a place in our hearts. We invite them to join us, to sit with us, to take our hand, and to sometimes walk us down the aisle.
At this time of Yizkor, let us extend that invitation. In this way, their memory does not end with the final words of the Kaddish.
Let us invite them to be an everlasting part of our lives.
L’olam Vaed…for ever and ever.