That Yizkor Not be in Vain
Shavuot Yizkor 2015
There are many things which we take for granted in the Jewish tradition yet for which we can find no clear origins in the Bible or the Talmud. They are, rather, based on the power of custom: Minhag. Minhag, custom, is so powerful, that we say minhag kedin hu, the custom is as powerful as a law.
Jews are an amazingly conservative people. It is not only loyalty to our law but also loyalty to our minhagim that has bound us together so well over the course of these many centuries. In fact, we often get to the point, where we say in Yiddish a minhig brecht a din , Custom can violate a Jewish law.
Even as great a figure as Rabbi Josef Karo, of Spanish ancestry, could not get the Jews of Eastern Europe to accept his Shulkhan Aruch until it was amended by Rabbi Moshe Isserles to incorporate the unique customs which had arisen in Germany and Poland. Shulkhan Arukh means “The Table is Set” but it was missing, said the Ashkenazic Jews, the table cloth, Mapah,which Rabbi Isserles provided. The Shulkhan Arukh became the universally accepted Code of Jewish Law only when it had with it the code of European custom.
Thus, a Yarmulka is a minhag, a custom, not a law, and one may observe both Biblical and Talmudic law and go about without a head covering. Nevertheless, minhag kedin, Jews have struggled to be allowed some kind of head-covering at the workplace, even in the military, as if it were an inviolable element of Jewish law.
Much of the rules of Kashruth on Pesah are matters of minhag, not law. Thus, I have been asked by many if real pasta is KP, while everyone knows that rice is not. Yet, the Halakhah, the law, is that real pasta, certainly, is not kosher for Passover, because it is, like bread, the result of the mixing of flour and water, which is the heart of the process of Hametz, and pasta is not baked, but allowed to sit until either boiled, or dried. Today, for Pesah, you can get fake pasta, made from all sorts of ersatz elements but no wheat flour, and certainly no good Italian restaurant would dare serve that kind of pasta!
On the other hand, rice, as well as peas and beans, are Hametz, which everyone knows, but only for Ashkenazim, as a custom, whereas, by law, halachah, Sefardic Jews eat rice and legumes and they are correctly kosher for passover.
It’s the power of custom. Minhag.
Then there is Yizkor.
Three times a year, in Ashkenazic tradition, at the three festive holidays, and on Yom Kippur, we Jews come in larger numbers than usual to recall those whom we love, at Yizkor.
What is this Yizkor which draws us in in such large numbers, so that on Yom Kippur, we are packed in probable violation of all safety regulations?
The name comes from the first sentence of the prayer of remembrance for our dead, "Yizkor elohim"--May God remember..." It is properly called " Hazkarat neshamot", Memorial for the Souls.
Where is it from?
We only know that in the time of the Maccabees and in later Rabbinic times, it was a custom to bring offerings or prayers on behalf of the dead, to atone for the sins of the deceased.
Later on, it became the practice to pray on behalf of the dead on Shabbat. They would pray for the dead sinners, that after Shabbat's rest they not be returned to hell but be forgiven once and for all of their sins.( Midrash Tanhuma).
By the early middle ages, it had become accepted that such prayers were offered on festivals and on Yom Kippur and this was actually opposed by the great Rabbinic leaders of the day. It is what you do in life, not what someone else does for you when it’s too late, that counts before God, they insisted. They insisted and lost, as they lost on many other issues where custom overrode the law. Rabbis didn’t rule with force of police, after all; they could only persuade.
It is an ironic example of a minhag brecht a din, custom overrides a law. By law, one may not mourn or display signs of mourning on Shabbat and the festivals, and by practice, one does not recite the El Maleh prayer in memory of the deceased on a Shabbat or festival, not even at a funeral during the mid-weeks of the Festivals for the act of mourning detracts from the joy of the festival. Yet look! Minhag brecht a din, the custom violates the law and we recite the prayer just when we are not allowed to recite it. The need to remember and ease the burden of memory is greater than the law itself.
Yizkor ultimately became embedded in the Jewish psyche, however, by the reality of Jewish existence.
During the Crusades, and again, in the seventeenth century, the Jews of Europe were the victims of the most horrible of massacres, and every Jew was a survivor, afflicted with the pain of memory of a loved lost one brutally murdered.
In our day, then, the individual loss of a loved one has been compounded by the loss to all the people of Israel of the great mass of the Jews of Europe who were murdered in the Holocaust, and by the smaller, but very significant number of Jewish heroes who were killed in the defense of the State of Israel.
Yizkor has taken on the function of a communal dedication to our slain that as we may say in the words of LIncoln, " That these dead shall not have died in vain".
Yizkor is more than just praying on behalf of the dead, more than what our ancestors felt was an act of filial piety; it becomes the event whereby we reconnect with those who trod upon the world before us or with us, those who gave us life and love, those who taught us, those who made our lives possible.
We ask ourselves the question: if we gather in their memory as Jews, what is it that they stood for? Surely, if anything, they stood for their role in the great chain of Jewish tradition and teaching, and we in their memory must take our part in keeping that great chain intact.
For Yizkor to have any significance it is not enough to mumble words that we do not understand. Our lives must be consistent with the teachings of Judaism which directed the generations before us: A life of doing what God expects of us, as the Jewish people have interpreted it in mitzvot and understanding and studying God's teachings, as the Jewish people have interpreted it in the form of Torah.
Central to all this, is the institution which has kept the heart and soul of the Jewish people together over tens of thousands of miles and over the course of three and a half millennia--the ancient Temple, and its successor, for 2000 years, the synagogue, the bet knesset.
I want you to keep in mind what a synagogue is for, especially this one, in the midst of West Hollywood, within the heart of America's fantasyland, where dreams and vision are put to celluloid and cds. This synagogue has gone through so many traumas, as we all know, and has nearly folded but with the efforts of some good volunteers it is still up and running.
Obviously, a synagogue is for praying, which is admittedly no longer a strong Jewish profession.
We must have a synagogue for studying in, and I try to bring that sense of study into our services
A synagogue is also the cite for rofeh lishvurey lev--the healer of the broken hearted.
There were many times that I had to open the chapel because someone needed to go to pray and meditate, undisturbed.
People come to the synagogue for an ear to hear.
I have had to counsel a rock and roll musician who lost his girl-friend to an early death.
Then there was a Samoan native, son of a Christian missionary, who had a dream that he needed to know who are the children of Israel. He sat out front, barefoot and in US military uniform, waiting for the Rabbi, because only the Rabbi could help him. Where else but here?
A young man was struck down in the prime of life in a road accident. To whom could the family talk, who would alley their pain at the funeral and afterwards if not the Rabbi ?
I bring up all these remembrances of Hollywood Temple Beth El, but not to say Kaddish for it and not Yizkor. This is a challenge to all of us here. Again, we think of Yizkor. If we wish to memorialize our dead, it is up to us to protect that which our loved ones sought to build and maintain, synagogues and centers of Judaism and the Jewish people, past and present, here and abroad.
I mentioned Lincoln's Gettysburg address, as an appropriate theme for the meaning of Yizkor. He concluded his address, by taking a famous quote about the Bible, "of the people, by the people, for the people", and applying it to the United States. I wish to turn his words around, now, again to apply it to our message of today:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here, to the unfinished work which they who have fought here thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion- that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
We highly resolve that those of the builders of this congregation from the original Laemmles, Warners and Meyers *, down to the newest immigrant finding his place in the New World, shall not have struggled in vain. Amen.
*Some background- among the founders of Hollywood Temple Beth El in 1922 were the founders of Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, and MGM.