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Pesah (Yizkor) 5782 - Where do we go when we die?

April 23, 2022 - 22 Nisan, 5782

I have been asked quite a bit recently about what Judaism has to say about life after death, and I have no single concrete answer. Certain streams of Judaism support an idea of reincarnation, while others support a notion of Gehennah (a sort of “bad or neutral place”) and Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden, or a sort of “good place”). Some believe that the body splits into different souls, which end up in different situations, and some believe that the most righteous among us earn a place in the same eternal study hall as our greatest Biblical and Talmudic figures. While many people find comfort in one or a combination of these ideas of life after death, I find the most comfort in the knowledge that our Jewish tradition has no singular idea of what is coming next. Regardless of where we go after this life is over, our actions in this world will affect the lives of the people who will live here after we are physically gone. All of us can achieve life after death through the memories we leave with our students, friends, colleagues, and family. So too, all of us can access those loved ones who have died through the ways in which we act upon our memories of them.

A bit later today, we will experience Yizkor, a memorial service that occurs on all three harvest festivals, as well as on Yom Kippur. Through the words and meditations of Yizkor, we remind ourselves of the ways in which we can emulate the best qualities of those we remember. Beginning with the very first statement of Yizkor, we also remind ourselves that we, too, have limited time to practice our deeds of remembrance:

Adonai, what are human beings that You take account of them, mortals that You care for them? Humans are as a breath, their days like a passing shadow. In the morning they flourish anew, in the evening, they shrivel and die. Teach us to count each day, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom. (Ps. 144:3-4, 90:6, 90:12).

While we cannot know for sure what will happen in the next life, or even if there will be a next life, we can make use of the time we have here and now to play on the wisdom we have gained from our recent and ancient ancestors. A few minutes later in our Yizkor service, in our personal prayers, we pledge tzedakah - righteousness or charity - on behalf of our loved ones, as a concrete action to make sure that wherever they are, their souls are still bound up in the bond of life. Through our deeds, they still live among those who are alive here and now. Finally, in our personal prayers, our singing of Psalm 23, and our recitation of Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish, we ask God to do God’s part as well, to shelter and guide our loved ones wherever their souls are, and to provide them with perfect rest.

Today, as we pray through Yizkor and pledge our tzedakah, let us dwell on how and to whom our loved ones have inspired us to give. To which organizations did they bring your attention those years ago? About which causes did they inspire you to write and promote? Beyond concrete tzedakah, today’s Yizkor should act as a reminder of the traits and qualities we wish to emulate from those we remember. Today, I will focus on my Bubbie’s gift of really hearing everything everyone says and of remembering those details to provide comfort and acknowledgment later. I’ll focus, too, on the enthusiasm my Bubbie garnered around Jewish holidays, giving my cousins, friends, and I only joyful memories of those evenings around the dining room table. In my Bubbie’s memory, I pledge to listen more attentively, to host enthusiastically, and to donate to a cause that promotes joy in Judaism. I’m curious, too, to hear the tzedakah and righteous actions you pledge to carry forward in memory of those you love.

Every time we come to Yizkor, some of us struggle with the reality that the people we remember were not entirely perfect, even if they were close to it. We are not alone in our reflections. After all, the patriarchs and matriarchs we mention in our prayers, those same names that God repeats again and again as inspiration for Moses to set his people free, had their significant character flaws. Over the past few weeks, in 929, we have spoken extensively about Abraham’s questionable parenting skills, Isaac’s passivity, and Jacob’s trickery and favoritism. And yet, we ascribe our three Amidot per day to their prayers, we feed and house guests in emulation of Abraham’s and Sarah’s knack for hosting, and we take the liberty to question and critically study our Judaism in memory of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. Even our most complicated loved ones can be remembered through some positive action, through our acting on one hope or value they held dear. Perhaps, we may even act on their memory through the lessons we have learned from them about what not to do.

Three times a year, we recite Yizkor on holidays during which we are likely to have a minyan present in this room. With a significant group of people present, we have peers with whom to cry, laugh, and share stories. We have peers with whom to brainstorm where to donate and how to bring our loved ones’ actions forward. Most importantly, we have the visual proof that we are not alone in our grief. Regardless of how long it has been, the community present in this room demonstrates that we all still need that opportunity for mourning those people who made a significant impact on who we are today. On this feast of freedom, we take advantage of the time we are free to spend to recall, and more importantly, to relive our fondest relationships. Shabbat Shalom and Hag Kasher v’Sameah.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784