Sermon: Renewed by our Ancestors – Yom Kippur Yizkor – Neilah 2010

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 28 September 2010

Our tent was full for Yizkor, our memorial service – as was pretty much every other Synagogue and rented hall used over the High Holy Days around the world.  Why?  Why is Yizkor the service that brings us together more than any other of the year?

This service has a long history.  The first record of Yizkor having taken place on Yom Kippur is in the Tanchuma a collection of interpretations of the Bible from the 5th to 9th Century.   There the Rabbi speaking quotes a particular verse in the Torah {[1]} which connects God’s forgiveness with those who have died and explains that this is why there is a Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.

The original Yizkor service was not like ours in which we just now participated.  It took place during the morning service as most Orthodox Yizkor services still do, just after the Torah and Haftarah portion is read, and was very simple consisting of three prayers.

Reform Judaism in this year passed the two hundredth anniversary of the services in Seesen in Germany which got our Movement for Reform Judaism worldwide started.  By 1819 the first Reform Synagogue had been established in Hamburg and one of the first reforms to Judaism they made was to make much more of the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.  Like we did today they added Psalms to the three traditional prayers, they added readings in German to bring the meaning of the service alive to the congregation remembering their dear ones.  They brought in pieces from the Sephardi tradition as well as the Ashkenazi tradition, using the rich treasure house of Jewish memorial prayer and piyuttim, (liturgical poems).  As far we know this Yizkor still took place in the Yom Kippur morning service.

The earliest record of Yizkor taking place when we hold it, just before Neilah, the final service of Yom Kippur is from the Reform Synagogue in New York which became the grand Temple Emmanu-el.  Their 1855 High Holy Days Mazchor has a Yizkor much like ours, built from traditional Yizkor prayers, psalms and specially written pieces beginning right after the Minchah afternoon service.   Their model gradually spread to Reform and Liberal Synagogues around the world so that now for us 5:30 on Yom Kippur is Yizkor time and the Tent is filled up.

That’s the history {[2]} – but it is not the history of our Yizkor that brings so many of us together at this time of the day.  Rather it is the meaning for us of Yizkor that does it.  Rabbi Jacob Petuchowski was rather dismissive of this meaning suggesting the full Synagogue at Yizkor time might mean that our attachment to our ancestors is greater than our attachment  to Judaism, but I think that he has missed the point.

When we come to Yizkor we carry our memories of the people who we loved, who influenced us, who we argued with, who we hugged, who we found fascinating, who we found frustrating, who made us who we are.   Through Yizkor we take them out of our past, bring them here into our present as we sit amongst our congregation and then, because of Reform Judaism’s insight that this point of Yom Kippur is a good place for Yizkor, we carry their presence into the service of Neilah which propels us into the future with the final blow of the Shofar.

By placing Yizkor here we give additional meaning to our memories of our loved ones.  They abide in our minds before the Gates of Repentance begin to close for the year.

If Yizkor is effective then the hopes and dreams of those who came before us accompany and influence our hopes and dreams as we reach our final consideration of what this New Year may mean for us.  In the words of Hannah Senesh “[their] shining memory lights the world after they have passed from it.  These lights which shine in the darkest night are those which illumine for us the path.”

When this Neilah service concludes everyone here who would like to end Yom Kippur and to begin the New Year in a beautiful way is invited to join the young people of our community who will have been preparing Havdallah for you – a short ceremony which will take place outside to the left as you leave the tent.  There we will take our leave of this Sabbath of Sabbaths with the bright lights of the Havdallah candle and the sweet smell of the spice packs that the young people will have prepared.  We will be releasing beacons of hope for the year ahead into the sky and carrying our traditional duty of doing the first act to make the Sukkah.  In that beauty bring the memory of those who helped to make you who you are as hope for the future, hopes they may have shared are shared by us as a community.

Something big has been happening in the Jewish community over the past few years, something which does give great meaning to the lives of those who came before us and who have set us on our path.  It is described eloquently in Keith Kahn Harris and Ben Gidley’s book “Turbulent Times” about the British Jewish Community today.   No more is the Jewish community trying to prove that we are “more British than the British”, what they call the strategy of security that we needed to establish ourselves as a community in the earlier twentieth century.  No more do we need to persuade ourselves to be Jewish because we are under such deep threat from the Soviet Union, assimilation, intermarriage with no way back into the Jewish community, what they call the strategy of insecurity.  No, today the Jewish community has built for itself the tools for Jewish renewal so that we can continue to build our Judaism.  It will be fascinating to see if the 2011 census shows the expected stabilisation of what was the decline of the Jewish community.

Our renewal has been shown in the success of Limmud, Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival, the Jewish Music Institute and other spaces where Jews of all kinds can come together to learn and simply enjoy being Jewish culturally as well as religiously without having to nail their colours to a single vision of Judaism.  Our renewal has flourished in the building of Pluralist and other Jewish Day Schools for those who want their children to grow up in a continuous rich Jewish environment together with a revolution in Jewish education for children who need their Synagogue to be the place for effective Jewish learning which you can witness this year at Alyth with the foundation of Galim, our Alyth Youth and Education Hub bringing Reform Judaism’s strongest young educators and youth leaders to our community.   The renewal of our worship continues in, as Rabbi Josh said this morning the way that at Alyth and throughout the community if you find it difficult to express your spirituality in the main service of your Synagogue you don’t just stop worshipping – but rather come and find or create another way of Jewish worship that works for you.  At Alyth there is at least one alternative Minyan every Shabbat for adults and children and there are many more around London.

We are renewing our relationship with Israel as Rabbi Laura said on Rosh Hashanah by learning to see and care about the development the whole of Israeli society, not only the Jewish majority, by holding Israel as a focal point of our Jewish identity but also understanding that meaningful support for Israel means that as well as celebrating her achievements we engage with her difficulties as a critical friend.  Whilst the Haredi end of our community renews itself with an extraordinarily high birth-rate, seeing their growth as a higher priority than the environmental impact of very large families, we Reform Jews are recognising that it is inclusion that means our community need not reduce and that Jewish life continues for good.  Reform Jewish renewal makes it definite that you can live a full and thriving Jewish life if your life partner is not Jewish as long as we the Synagogue community welcomes you and help you as a family to feel fully part of the whole of Judaism.   We also open the Gateway to Judaism wide so that our Synagogue hosts a thriving group of people converting to Judaism together with ensuring that every adult Jew who wants to learn Judaism from the ground up is able to do so in a friendly, intellectually stimulating and non-judgemental setting.

I am speaking about the opening of the gates of our community as the gates of repentance are about to close in Neilah.  Yizkor has given us a glimpse beyond those gates, where the Book of Life is written and then sealed.  Leon Wiseltier wrote in his beautiful book Kaddish  “The difference between the living and the dead is the difference between the remembered and the forgotten.  To be alive but forgotten or neglected, or denied:  is that not a kind of death?  And to be dead but remembered or studied, or missed: is that not a kind of life?”  {[3]}

Alyth and Jewish renewal is directed to life – we are a community to the extent that we care about and support each others growth, console each other in our troubles, celebrate with each other in our achievements and direct our spiritual selves to God in large and small groups seeking together.

Let our memory of our loved ones, our shining presences in all their complexity propel us forward as we give their memory life by improving our world, our people, our community, ourselves inspired by the best in them.  God set before us in our Torah portion this afternoon life and good, death and evil.   This year choose life