During these High Holy Days, we have repeated the refrain during the Amidah prayers, Zochreinu l’chayim, “Remember us unto life.” How strange now at the end of it all, we remember people we loved, those who loved us, but have left us. They are gone.

During Yizkor we attempt to find meaning in death. This moment provides a resting point where we may pause and evaluate the meaning of our lives and theirs. It was a bond between imperfect people. They, like us, were full of faults, capable of great anger and great love. We forgive ourselves for how we behaved, for words not spoken, for unresolved events. We forgive our dead. They hurt us sometimes by what they said or did or what they did not say. If they were our parents, they did the best that they could. They did no less and no more. We are grateful for the gifts we gave and we received.

“When a person moves through this world, however briefly, he leaves a trail. We crisscross each other’s lives, leaving traces of influence, of meaning. Each of us brings something, even if at first we cannot figure it out.”1

We remember their laughter as their joy, seemingly contagious, made us smile and join in laughter with them.

We remember their tears, streaming a crooked path down their faces, revealing for us the tenderness of the moment.

We remember the truths they spoke to us in earnest, making us aware of our shared vision of hope.

In some ways – in many ways – they have touched us and we are changed for the better. And yet, there are those for whom you are saying Kaddish today who died too soon or unexpectedly, those who died too quickly for you to share an intimate thought. What if you had one more day with someone who is gone? I can’t imagine what some felt when they saw the movie Ghost, where Patrick Swayze “comes back to life” for a few minutes to be with his girlfriend. Did you too wonder what you would say to a parent or a child or a spouse if you had those few minutes?

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe was 11 years old when his dad died of a heart attack in 1938. “My father is a prisoner of my memory,” the rabbi said. “If I were granted a day, I would tell my father that as a boy he threw a snowball at his brother and hit him between the eyes. His brother went blind. My father went to his death feeling guilty about that. He did not know that his brother suffered an illness that made him susceptible to losing his vision. I would want to say, ‘Dad, it wasn’t your fault.’”

At funerals, I occasionally hear of a person’s regrets. I heard a tragic story of one told by a colleague. At the conclusion of the funeral the only ones left at the graveside were the rabbi and the widower. The widower was sobbing uncontrollably. The rabbi urged him to come along. The man looked up and said, “I loved her, you know?” The rabbi replied, “Yes, I know.” The man looked down at the grave and said, “I almost told her once.”

When it comes to those we miss, we want one more meal, one more argument, one more opportunity to tell them we love them. We want to reassure them that we are all right. What this means is that the ordinary is precious and that every day is an opportunity to find a treasure. We know that now.

As the gates begin to close, remember us, O God, for the good which we have done. We ask for forgiveness from those we have harmed this past year. We ask You to forgive us for the sins we have committed against You, and to write us in the book of life, zochreinu l’chayim. This is the call from those whom we have come to memorialize today: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband, wife, friend and relative. They cry out, zochreinu l’chayim, remember us, our words, our deeds, the worlds we created. You are part of us as we will always be part of you.

Death is not the end. Our dear ones have passed through the gateway of the grave into the peace of life that endures eternally. We know that each of us must tread the same path, though we know not when our hour will come. Let us so live that the coming of that hour shall finds us unafraid. May our deeds do honor to the memory of our beloved whom You have taken unto Yourself (adapted from UPB I, p. 368).

So, we stand by the open grave and say Kaddish and grieve, and try to carry on, and most often we surprise ourselves, for somehow, we find the strength to live.2 Our goal is to leave a trace for others, a trail of living that may serve as a blessing and an inspiration for those who come after us. When we die, perhaps those who knew us well will note that we walked the earth bravely and lovingly once upon a time.

[1] Rabbi David Wolpe, Making Loss Matter, p189.
[2] Rabbi Sandy Ragins, Yom Kippur Yizkor, 1995.