As our ancestors have done for centuries, we recall the memory of loved ones who meant so much to us personally, as well as the martyrs who meant so much to our people and our history as a whole.
Why Yizkor comes at the end of Pesach is easy to answer. The clue is in key sentences from the various readings on these final days of the festival. In particular, in four sentences which speak to us with crystal-like clarity.
The first is from the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 37:3). Ezekiel stands looking down into a valley where he sees nothing but a heap of dry bones. Ben adam, says God. Hatich’yenah ha’atzamot ha’eleh – “can these bones live?”
Have you ever thought how automatically we each echo these words on the sad occasions in life?
When there comes the inevitable moment that a person stands before an open grave in which lie the ruins of his happiness; when the eye of a loved one is closed forever, their heart so still, their hand so cold; when lifeless bones and flesh lie in a grave… doesn’t one instinctively look down and bitterly ask in the same historic words, “Can these bones live?”
But then comes a second verse. The Israelites, pursued and surrounded by foes, facing the angry waves of a sea of troubles, stride confidently forward: and lo and behold, B’nei yisrael hal’chu bayabashah b’toch hayam – “The Children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea” (Ex. 15:19).
By all the laws of nature and logic, the Israelites should not have succeeded in overcoming the waters of the sea. In panic and despair they should have walked into the waters and perished.
Yet this was never the Jewish way. The Jewish way is not to give in to black despair and abandon all hope. The Jewish way is to treat every menacing sea as a challenge, as a threat. Instead of giving in and giving up, we somehow overcome the waters and walk on dry land.
When we stand broken-hearted and grief-stricken beside the grave of a loved one we do not give in to hopelessness and despair. At that very moment, when the wound is most open and the pain most bitter, we keep our dignity and faith and walk on dry land in the midst of the sea.
We say, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:2). The Lord gave this delight to my soul, this happiness to my life. The Lord took it away from me, back to Himself. I do not rail against Him. In all sincerity and truth I proclaim, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
This way we reach the heights of faith, the fullest submission to God’s will. In this spirit we repeat day by day for eleven months, in the hearing of the congregation, Yit’gaddal veyit’kaddash sh’mei rabbah. We submit to the justice and will of God, to His universal sway over life and death.
Then there comes into our thoughts a further sentence from the Pesach Machzor, this time from a poem based on the Song of Songs: B’rach dodi ad sheyafuach ketz machazeh, chish v’nas’u hatz’lalim mizeh – “Flee away, my beloved, until the end of vision – let the shadows depart from hence”.
One cannot tell God, heref yadecha – “hold back Your hand”. The departing soul has to leave. Generations must pass away; other generations must be able to spring up. Each has a part in the Divine purpose. All must help to bring God’s will to the world, and love and compassion on earth.
The Jew who stands by the grave knows that father and mother did their share in their lifetime, according to their own capacity and in their
own way. Now they enjoy life eternal and bliss for evermore. He says to them, b’rach dodi ad sheyafuach ketz machazeh.
The end of Pesach brings a fourth sentence to show us the way. It speaks of the duty of the Israelite on the three festivals, instructing him to come to the sanctuary with matnat yado – “the gift of his hand” (Deut. 16:17).
This is the way you show resolution. In deeds louder than words you carry on the example and honour the teaching of good parents.
You bring matnat yad in their memory.
You perpetuate their name by deeds of charity and generosity.
You run your home and bring up your family in a way that shows their wise influence.
You reward their love by showing love and friendship towards others.
You learn – perhaps for the first time – that life is short, that no man knows the day of his death.
You make up your mind to fill every day to the full and, at the end of the day, to make a private reckoning with your conscience, never unprepared to face the bar of Divine judgment.
I suspect that some readers will mutter disapprovingly because these festival thoughts have been so morbid. Shouldn’t I have spoken cheerfully, as befits a yom-tov? What’s all this seriousness and solemnity on a festive occasion?
If this is your view, don’t close your eyes to reality. Life brings shade as well as light. On a day of sadness a little glimmer of light beckons from the distance. On a day of joy we must not lose ourselves in frivolity without thought for the morrow. Both are sides of the same coin.
Isn’t this why, with true insight, our sages inserted a Yizkor into the festival service – to teach that hope must ever temper sadness and a sense of responsibility must ever temper joy?