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Shemini Atzeret Yizkor – Letting Memories Linger

10/15/2021 02:43:20 PM


Rabbi Nat Ezray

An area of life that deeply impacts how I continue to grow morally and in character often occurs when I meet with a family preparing for a funeral. Sharing stories about their loved ones who dies almost always provides wisdom about what a life well lived means. I learn about behaviors to embrace and avoid.

          Listening to stories about loved ones, I learn about unconditional love – accepting people for who they are in a way that allows them to thrive. I learn about loved ones who inspired through how they lived values and exemplified character. I also learn about loved ones who caused hurt and pain that is difficult to heal. Often that is connected to receiving harsh judgements and criticism that stings. I always leave thinking about who I am and who I want to be.

          Yizkor brings us face to face with all of those memories. They linger with us and impact us. Yizkor allows us to hold onto the good, put the difficult memories in perspective and sit with the combination of positive, negative, mundane, and profound. The great commentator Rashi explains the meaning of Shmini Azteret as an extra holiday tacked on to Sukkot. He connects the word atzeret to the notion of stopping and lingering; of God wanting to spend a bit more time with people God loved. For us, Yizkor is a time to let memories linger. For some of us it is a time to bathe in wonderful memories; it’s not complicated at all. But for some of us, different types of memories mingle – positive and negative; mundane and profound.  For some, and it must always be said, the memories are about painful things that never should have occurred and cannot be justified. Yizkor allows every memory to lift up. What do we do with those more complicated relationships and contradictory memories that so many of us have?

          Rabbi Wes Gardenschwartz spoke about this in a Yizkor sermon last year. He references a beautiful essay by Ann Patchett, in the New Yorker called “My Three Fathers.” Her mother was married to three men and Ann considered all of them her fathers in different ways. Rabbi Gardenswartz focused on Ann’s relationship with her biological father was indeed complicated – yet full of love.

          She writes that growing up, all she dreamed about was becoming a writer. She writes: “I wrote and read and read and wrote.” She wasn’t into sports, clubs or socializing. Yet, her father Frank had other thoughts about how she should spend her time. Her father wanted her to be athletic. He wanted her to be on teams, join clubs, start clubs. He wanted her to run for office in any organization that held elections. He wanted her to audition, volunteer, be part of something, submit. What mattered to him was that she be well-rounded and there was nothing well rounded about her! When she said that she was going to be a writer, he said, “Someday you’ll get divorced. You’ll have a couple of kids to support. You’re not going to be able to do that writing. You can’t be so selfish.” He offered ideas of more practical professions instead. It was painful to read about her feeling so misunderstood and not appreciated by her father.

          A powerful piece of the article was its wisdom that as time passes, we have the opportunity to understand things differently. She now understands that in his own way, he may have been trying to protect her from suffering. Yizkor can bring perspective and understanding that develop over time.

          She also understands, as many who have painful experiences with loved ones do, that her response to her experiences helped her become who she wanted to be. She writes: “It turns out that having someone who believed in my failure more than in my success kept me alert. It made me fierce. Without ever meaning to, my father taught me at an early age to give up on the idea of approval. I wish I could bottle that freedom now and give it to every young writer I meet, with an extra bottle for the women.” Pain can help us grow. As memories linger, we too see how growth comes from the difficult experiences we had with others.

          Time allowed Ann Patchett to make peace with her father’s memory, loving him for who he was, and seeing things she may have overlooked. She saw the good that was in her dad. For all that he discouraged her from being a writer, he instilled in her a love of reading, and he bonded with Ann over that love of books. They would read and discuss The Red Badge of CouragePride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina together. 

          And it wasn’t just books that bonded them. Her father was a Los Angeles police captain. She remembers: When my father came home from work, a gun holstered on the back of his belt beneath his suit jacket, I stood on his shoes so we could dance, my father singing and swaying us back and forth, ‘Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.’” In a beautiful line in the article, she writes: “Dear God, how I loved him. How he loved me!”

Yizkor is a time when the good memories surface – even when the relationship was complicated.

          In analyzing the article, Rabbi Gardenschwartz points out that Ann Patchett teaches us to try to understand and frame the bad by putting it in context. Why couldn’t her father see her? After all, he did love her, so why could he not fully see her? And then she thought about his life and tried to see her father as shaped by the worlds he lived in: Catholicism, the Navy, and the police department. All are worlds of hierarchy where, as she puts it, “Captains gave orders and sailors went to sea.” Since he followed his orders, why shouldn’t his two daughters follow their orders? It was all he knew, and that context allows her to hold him with compassion – and forgiveness.

          She also focuses on how his impoverished childhood scarred and shaped him. He had memories of his father pounding the pavement, looking for a job in Los Angeles, with a wife and seven children at home to support. He had one sandwich in his pocket all day long as he looked for that job. Her father had his own memories, of getting out of the Navy, taking a job in a liquor store, and not having a home to sleep in. He wanted to spare his daughter from the poverty that he, and his father, knew only too well. That’s why he was skeptical of her literary dreams.

          It doesn’t do away with or justify the hurt – but context helps us understand and open doors to forgive.  As we allow memories to linger – compassion has the capacity to grow.

          In the Midrash that Rashi cites, there is something wistful about the call to have a little more time with the people we love. God wants it with us today – an extra day of the holiday season. And many of us want it with the legacy of the people we come to remember. Whether their legacy was complicated or simple, our task is to sit with our truths – to interpret and reinterpret. As memory lingers love grows in unexpected ways. May Yizkor provide those opportunities.

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782