Today concludes our High Holy Days. Over the generations, some of our rabbis have taught that on Yom Kippur one’s fate is sealed as to whether you are inscribed into the Book of Life or not. Others teach that one has until the end of Sukkot to offer amends. And for still others, one may have until Chanukah. No matter. For me, the question is not when the Book of Life is closed for us; rather, it is the curious proximity of two Yizkor services in our High Holy Days observances.
For those who were with us in the afternoon of Yom Kippur and its memorial Yizkor, have you ever wondered why our tradition provides a second Yizkor observance less than two weeks later? I do have an answer of my own, but for today I would just like to speak about what is special about today.
Sh’mini Atzeret is “the eighth day of solemn assembly”. It is the day added to the seven-day observance of Sukkot. Sh’mini, of course, means “eight.” It is the word Atzeret that is of interest. It has been translated as “Solemn Assembly” or “gathering.”
Its root is: ayin, tzadi, reish. Its meanings can be: “end”, “close up”, “restrain”, or “detain”. I am a bit partial to the last meaning. Why is a person detained at the end of Sukkot? Perhaps it is for them to “pause” from their present activity – or Sukkot observances – to reflect on something different, something important that they are missing.
What could be missing during this Holy Day? Sukkot is perfection, isn’t it? It is seven days. That is the perfect number: seven days of Creation. The holy Sabbath day is the seventh day. Isn’t the Sabbath a day of pausing? The eighth day is one day beyond perfection and logic. Circumcision also comes on the eighth day. Why not the seventh? Perhaps it is for us to get out of our own heads and our normal way of thinking, just as today we get out of our sukkahs.
It is as if God wants us to pause at the end of the High Holy Days and again at the end of Sukkot in order to say, “Wait! Don’t go! Linger with Me a little longer!” So, today is called Atzeret, “the pause” or “the lingering” of the eighth day. It becomes an extra day of this holiday, when Sukkot is over but we have not yet pulled away from God’s Presence, and so we recite Yizkor for the second time during this fall holiday season.
Today, we “pause” not only to remember our loved ones whom we have come this day to recall; but perhaps the “pause” is for us to think about them in a different way than the way we have been remembering.
When my dad died earlier this year, I already had a memory of who he was to me. And yet, each of my siblings had a different story about him. A friend of mine from Michigan told me even a different story about how my dad had impacted his future rabbinate. I did not fully embrace my siblings’ memories. I certainly had no idea of the chapter of my dad’s life that my rabbinic friend recalled.
A member of one congregation once raised a concern. He told his rabbi that he did not desire to attend any Yizkor service. When asked why, he responded, “I have no issue with the memorial prayers; but to mention the name of the dead is too hard for me to bear.” The rabbi told this young man, “The reason why the dead are mentioned is because the mention of death breaks a person’s heart and subdues his inclination to evil.”
Ram Dass, Jew and Buddhist teacher, offers a similar but different teaching: “Grief is one of our greatest teachers. It cracks us open – that’s how the light gets in. It demands we look at our relationship with life and our fear of death.” He went on to say, “Loss wounds the heart, causing it to fall open. Love rushes into the absence left by loss.”
Our Yizkor service held this morning is an indication of the wisdom of our rabbis. They understood that for us, our desire is to avoid the painful reality of loss. It is so painful that our loved one is no longer at our side, that we can no longer hear his or her voice. By avoiding the mention of that name, the emptiness is less painful.
The breaking of our hearts, though painful, is meant to open our minds to a healing and a love that will help us continue on our journeys. Mentioning the name of a loved one no longer with us, especially in the company of strangers and friends during Yizkor, is the way we, as a community, support you in your loss: we help you understand that at some point you will no longer remember every good deed or unresolved issue of your beloved. You will remember their soulful presence in our world, those attributes which lifted up your spirits and the spirits of your loved ones. When you do that, love fills the emptiness of your heart where once they dwelled. It is that love, when embraced by your spirit, that will guide you to become more like them, to absorb the goodness of their spirit into your own behavior.
In this “pause” of Yizkor, I can think about who that person was to me. And yet, there is more to the person – my dad – than I recall from my experience with him. So, today I pause to reflect on my sisters’ and brother’s stories of my dad. I linger to think on how a future rabbi’s experience with my dad influenced him in a significant way. Embedded in my memory now is more than what I thought just a moment before. My personal memory is part of me. And yet, there is more to my dad’s life than what I know and what I remember. Today, I pause to read other chapters in his Book of Life. Those stories can now be a part of who I am, who I can be, who I can become. Those chapters influence how I feel about others, and how I behave. Those additional chapters add more loving memories to the person I lost.
This week, David Wolsky’s nephews displayed the various eulogies read at his funeral against the background of David’s abstract artwork. This, too, was an expression of the desire to remember David not only against our own backdrop of personal memories, but against David’s, and also in the ways that others painted him into their memories.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call” — an opportunity to go inside oneself, to call up the memory of the person one has lost, and imagine them, and say whatever it is that one most needs to say to that person right then and there. Perhaps if we are lucky enough, we can see their face, hear their voice, and hear their wise response to our request.
Today, on this day of Sh’mini Atzeret, we pause and linger just a little bit longer — with God, at the end of this festival season, and with those whom we have lost but will never forget. May we continue to keep the stories of our loved ones alive and allow ourselves to discover chapters that inspire us to live lives of nobility and for the good of all.
Revised from sermon delivered October 24, 2016
 Walking Each Other Home, page 140.
 Ibid., page 141.