Shavuot Sermon: On Yizkor

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 31 May 2017

In a few moments we will rise together for Yizkor, the Memorial Service.  We will join together in what is known as “hazkarat n’shamot” – remembering the souls.  We will think of those we have lost, and pray for them.

That we do so, and the words that we will use to do so, are inextricably tied up with communal memory of acts of violence.

The exact history of yizkor is complicated.  Though there are ancient traditions of praying for the dead, the first evidence of a formal communal ritual like that which we will recite is in the Rhineland in the shadow of the Crusades.  There we come across a tradition of reciting a prayer known as Av HaRachamim – rather a brutal and unpleasant prayer demanding divine retribution on behalf of “the holy communities that gave their lives”.  It was, and still is in Orthodox traditions, read on two martyr Shabbatot – the Shabbat before Shavuot and the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.

Around the same time, there is evidence of a formal Yizkor – a communal liturgical memorial –being introduced into the Torah service on Yom Kippur morning.  This took the form of a ceremonial allotting of tzedakah in memory of the dead.  By the late Middle Ages, the practice of Yizkor in Eastern Europe had extended to the three Pilgrim Festivals, as if once a year was insufficient in the shadow of pogroms and massacres – the need for communal mourning was too great. And so the occasions on which to do so, and the liturgy, were expanded.

Then we came along.  The early German and American Reformers added scriptural verses – Enosh k’chatzir as we shall sing – and (especially on Yom Kippur) they moved Yizkor from being an addition to the Torah service to a distinct service with an identity of its own.  An migrant communities, they needed greater opportunities to connect to their mourning at distance.

So the Yizkor that we will recite in a moment will tie us directly into the history of communal mourning of our people – the discrete, ritual response of a people used to the experience of loss and violence.

At some point in the journey, as we know, the Yizkor service became about personal remembrance rather than communal experience.  However, the echoes of the latter remain.

At the heart of our Yizkor which we will sing in a moment, is an Ashkenazi Memorial Prayer, El Maleh Rachamim.  It is an extraordinarily powerful prayer, a plea that the souls of the departed be granted menuchah nechonah (perfect rest).  We sing it at Yizkor, at a funeral, a shiva, a consecration of a memorial.  It is one of those truly powerful liturgical moments – a moment of mournful nusach out of the silence.  And like the Yizkor itself it carries with it the weight of history.

Every time we sing El Maleh Rachamim, we place ourselves into the Jewish experience of loss and suffering.  And especially at Shavuot.  The earliest versions of El Maleh Rachamim have their roots in the Chmielnicki Massacres beginning in 1648, which were especially commemorated in this month of Sivan.  El Maleh Rachamim would often be accompanied by a liturgical chronicle outlining the events of the Pogroms – raw, brutal accounts, calling on God from anger and pain.  Every time we sing El Maleh Rachamim, especially at Shavuot, we become mourners not only for our own dead, but for generations of communities which have suffered violence.

We no longer refer directly in our El Maleh Rachamim to martyrdom or to loss by violence.  Nor does our version contain, as it does in an Orthodox siddur, the promise that a named mourner “yitein tzdakah hazkarat nishmato” – “will give tzedakah in remembrance of his soul”.

But the echoes of these aspects of yizkor remain.  Ripples of history in the words we say, in the liturgy we hold in our hands.

El Maleh Rachamim contains some extraordinary imagery.  It calls on God to extend over our loved ones “kanfei shechinah” – the wings of the Shechinah – an intimate, divine protection, physical and spiritual.  “Hastireim b’seter knafecha l’olamim” – cover them in the shelter of your wings forever.  And then it uses a difficult to understand, but deeply resonant phrase, u’tzror bi’tzror ha-chayyim et nishmatam – often translated “may you bind their souls into the bond or gathering of life” – though the imagery is more of a knot, or a bundle.  Our colleague Sylvia Rothschild wrote that the imagery is of “each soul being one of the threads of a tapestry that is still being woven, still important to the fabric as a whole, adding to the pattern and anchoring the threads that come after it”.  The phrase is often found on gravestones – tav, nun, tzadee, bet, hei – t’hi nishmato (or nishmatah) zrurah bitzrur hachayyim.

As Sylvia also observes, this phrase – at the heart of El Maleh Rachamim – is also powerful for what it leaves unsaid.  It is a quote, from the Book of Samuel, in which Abigail meets a fleeing (future King) David.  “If anyone sets out to seek your life” she tells him “the life of my lord will be bound up in the bundle of life in the care of God – but God will fling away the lives of your enemies as from the hollow of a sling”.  The text therefore speaks, but does not speak, of the pain and anger, of the desire for divine retribution in the face of violence, a theme which is more explicit in other prayers from the period.

Why this history and text lesson this Shavuot morning?

In part because it is Shavuot – and Yizkor means something more at Shavuot.

In part because it is Shavuot – we should come to Yizkor as we do the whole festival, through the lens of text and learning.

And also because of our context – with the events of last week still fresh, and raw.  This morning, our act of remembrance carries an extra resonance.  Our Yizkor is a direct echo of the memorializing that has taken place around the country, and especially in Manchester, over the last week or so – using language and imagery spread across continents and generations.  It contains the same mix of emotions.  We know the experience of loss, of horror, because it is in our history and in our liturgy.

As we recite Yizkor this morning, we remember, we call on God to remember: to remember our dead, those we mourn and miss; to remember those holy communities that were brutalised and lost; to remember all those caught up in violence.

May their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life; may they find protection under the wings of the Shechinah.