Sermon: Yizkor

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 30 September 2020

Yesterday morning, I conducted the funeral of one of our members. Just 9 mourners and I stood around the coffin. Better, at least, than the early months of the pandemic, when it was just me and the coffin. But like all my colleagues, we’ve seen the pain and distress of a family being told they cannot fulfil that mitzvah of “l’vayat ha’met,” ‘accompanying the dead,’ the last act of fidelity, chesed and love we can do for a loved one.

For over 50 years I’ve been conducting Yamim Noraim services. Never before have I stood on a bimah, looking at an empty synagogue and only seen my community on a screen – thank goodness, at least, for that possibility. Shed a tear for our Orthodox co-religionists who must have spent this day in solitary confinement. I don’t imagine there’s a single Jew alive today, who was in this country during the war, who wasn’t able to be with their fellow Jews for Yizkor. And it has made me think about what is it that we are doing at Yizkor.

At 3:00pm on Friday October 25 1918 more than a thousand Jews watched as Rabbi Lifshitz officiated at the chuppah of Fanny Jacobs and Harold Rosenberg in Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia. Nothing unusual about that – except that this chuppah took place in the Cobbs Creek cemetery. It was a “schwartze chossene” in Yiddish, a ‘black wedding,’ done in response to the Spanish Flu epidemic. The idea was simple: a man and a woman, either impoverished or orphaned, would be married under a chuppah in a cemetery. Those attending give them money to set up their new home. Fanny and Harold apparently ended up with over $1000 – a vast sum of money in 1918. As a newspaper report described it at the time, “with this act of group chesed, it was hoped that the attention of God would be called to the affliction of their fellows, if the most lowly couple should join in marriage in the presence of the dead.” Such “schwartze chosseneh” were reported later that year in places as far apart as Winnipeg in Canada and Odessa in the Ukraine. And in April this year there was, apparently, a ‘black wedding’ between two orphans in a cemetery in the ultra-Orthodox community of Bnei Berak in Israel as a remedy to stop the pandemic.

Last month, Bernard Henri-Levy, the French philosopher, published a reflection on Covid 19. It was called in French “Ce Virus qui rend fou” but published in English under the title, “The Virus in the age of Madness.” A more-accurate and, I think, more-appropriate translation of “Ce Virus qui rend fou”  would be “This virus which makes one mad.”

A ‘black wedding’ sounds like something – is like something – from a mad world; but we can recognise that it is an attempt to ritualise fear. In the face of forces over which they had no control, that community turned to the ways it had normally employed for dealing with tragedy and unusual circumstances. Ritual was understood as having a protective effect, like a talisman. Well, we don’t see rituals in that way, but we can certainly feel the need in such times to search for something on which to hold.

In my childhood, it was customary to send children out for Yizkor if their parents were still alive – even grown-up children would have to leave. There is no basis for this practice in Jewish law which was usually explained by something like “it’s not good for children to see their parents crying.” Throughout my rabbinate I have argued against this practice. While it obviously depends on the age of the child; parents might be so consumed with grief at the death of their parent that they forget that their child has lost a grandparent with whom they might have had a very deep, close and special relationship.

In normal times, Yizkor is about a recognition and acceptance of the mortality of our loved ones. It’s always particularly poignant and painful, obviously, for those whose loved ones died since the previous Yom Kippur. But this year, without being at all flippant, we could ask, “mah nishtanah ha-yizkor ha’zeh mi’kol ha-yizkorim” “why is this yizkor different from all other yizkors?” It has such a different valance, feel to it. This year it makes us aware, not just of the mortality of those no longer with us, but of our own mortality.

Who among us cannot feel anxiety levels rising as we have seen, this past fortnight, those graphs with a rising curve of Covid cases and deaths? I had a dentist’s appointment in town last Wednesday. It was the first time I had been on the Tube since February. Even what were the most quotidian, mundane of activities just months ago: going to the cinema, getting on that Tube, schmoozing in the office with colleagues, shopping, school, whatever – now call for thought, preparation, even decision: “is it really necessary that I do this?”

This year, then, we bring to Yizkor a sharpened awareness of our own mortality, heightened by uncertainty: what can I do and not do?; what is ‘safe’?; how might what I do affect not only me, but those with whom I am in contact? I’ve put the NHS tracing app on my phone, but I dread that moment when it might ‘ping’ or whatever it will do when I’ve been – unknowingly – in contact with somebody who is Covid19-positive, and what that might mean.

I sometimes compare Yizkor to a stonesetting. When I started in the rabbinate, the family often seemed to treat the stonesetting like an action replay, as it were, of the funeral. A loved one dies. What was a deep cut in the body of the mourner begins to develop scar tissue. The wound begins to heal. At stonesettings it sometimes seemed like people wanted to rip the scab off and inflict the pain on themselves all over again – and why would you want to do such a thing? Of course I understood why – but the best part of a year on, you are, hopefully, in a different place from where you were at the time of the funeral. With some deaths, of course, time has little or no healing balm. Any death ‘out of season,’ as it were: that of a child; of somebody who dies in pain, too young; or this year, of a Coronavirus death.

Stonesettings have, I would say ‘thankfully,’ shifted in focus. They have now become much more a celebration of that life – a recognition of who and what that person was, the qualities that made them special, what they brought to life. There was a vogue, 25 or so years ago, for people to write their ‘ethical will.’ This was not about your material legacy but your spiritual one: what was the moral guidance you had learned in your life that you wanted to bequeath to your descendants. Stonesettings have, I think, become much more like that. And maybe writing an annual ethical should be part of our Yom Kippur preparation.

That’s why I think yizkor should be a stonesetting rather than a funeral; restorative and serious but not sombre, a moment of refocussing on loved ones who are no longer with us, on who and what they were, on what they gave us.

So “mah nishtanah ha-yizkor ha-zeh”? In some ways, nothing different from last year or, we pray, next year. And yet…..

So we don’t send the children out when we come to Yizkor; we don’t organise “schwartze chossenes” or other arcane rituals which we believe will somehow keep the plague away from the door.

But there is a sort of ‘ritual’ we can fall back on in this terrible pandemic. It’s very simple. There is no deep theology here. Two reflections. Firstly, about ourselves. A psychotherapist reflected with me last Friday night that we talk to ourselves more than we do to anybody else – so, she said, “say nice things to yourself.” And then it’s about ‘more’: more deepening and strengthening of our relationships, more comforting others, more loving each other. At such a time of dread and uncertainty maybe all we have is the quality of our relationships. May we use this time of Yizkor, these last moments of this so, so different Yom Kippur to do that.