May 27th, 2023

The Yizkor service is an occasional but important reminder of the power and beauty of memory. We always say Yizkor during a Jewish a festival: Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot. Each of these festivals is itself part of a memory cycle.

In the introduction to my new book, Hearts & Minds on Jewish Festivals, I have written about how memory has intertwined itself with Jewish tradition, in a very personal way. After recalling several shared experiences that I had together with my parents and grandparents at different times of the Jewish calendar year, I conclude as follows:

“These memories and so many more turn each festival and each significant Jewish date into a combination of history, tradition, Jewish laws and customs, memories, nostalgia, and new experiences. And the result is so much greater than any one of those individual components. Every wine stain on the pages of the Haggadah we use. Every forgotten High Holidays schedule that we left tucked into the pages of the maḥzor. The special yomtov-connected drawings that our kids gave us when they were at preschool that suddenly reappear at the relevant time of year. The smell of yomtov food cooking in the kitchen. Each one of these triggers and so many more – too many to mention – are the kaleidoscope of our Jewish experience which add color, context, and meaningfulness to the festival experience, augmenting the practical aspects of the festivals and notable Jewish dates that punctuate our lives.”

I would like to invite you to explore the gift of memory, as we reflect on the importance of both accurate and embellished recollections in our lives.

During our festive gatherings over Yom Tov, we often find ourselves immersed in family stories, both old and new. We may notice that these stories have evolved over time, with details occasionally embellished to create a better narrative. In fact, the concept of memory is a fascinating subject.

Dr. Julia Shaw, a Canadian psychologist best known for her research into false memories and the malleability of human recollection, explored the phenomenon of false memories in her book, “The Memory Illusion.” In her book, she explains how our recollections can become distorted over time and how even our memories of deceased loved ones may be subject to these distortions.

“There are too many psychological processes and biases that enter once someone has passed away to believe that our memories of that person can possibly remain unscathed,” she writes, but then adds: “But that’s OK.”

Dr. Shaw highlights the average eulogy as an example. In a eulogy, we often remember our loved ones in the best possible light. These memories are by their nature filtered and partially distorted, because they present a version of our departed loved ones that we should all be so lucky to be remembered by – the best version of themselves.

When someone tries to highlight a less complimentary side of someone who has died at their funeral in a eulogy, we all think to ourselves, “How dare you?” I recall attending a funeral many years ago of one of my professors from university, a renowned and highly respected academic in the field of Jewish history.

His grandson spoke at the funeral. “You all remember my grandfather as a great intellect, as a fount of knowledge,” he began, “but there was more to him than that. I knew him as the old man with dandruff on his jacket, who was a bit crotchety and impatient. That was my grandpa.” And I was thinking to myself, as was everyone else: Really? That’s what you say at the man’s funeral?

I’ve mentioned this before: One morning in 1888, the Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel woke up to read his own obituary in a French newspaper. The headline boldly proclaimed, “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” referring to Nobel’s invention of dynamite and his association with the arms industry.

Nobel was shocked and dismayed. He realized the legacy he would leave behind if he were to pass away at that moment was very negative and he was determined to change his public image. So he decided to leave a different kind of legacy.

Nobel rewrote his will, bequeathing the majority of his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes, which would honor achievements in various fields, including peace, literature, physics, chemistry, and medicine.

Nobel’s decision to redirect his wealth and establish the prestigious Nobel Prize was a direct response to the mistaken obituary. He wanted to be remembered for positive contributions that would benefit humanity, rather than as the “Merchant of Death” associated solely with his invention.

In Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” we encounter a rare and amusing situation.

Tom and Huckleberry Finn, presumed dead, unexpectedly appear at their own funeral service. Tom finds this moment to be the proudest of his life, as he hears the sobs of his mourners firsthand. Crazily enough, earlier this year – this exact same scenario happened in real life – although the outcome was a little different.

In February this year, Baltazar Lemos, a 60-year-old Brazilian funeral director, who has conducted thousands of funerals over the years, found himself contemplating his own legacy after witnessing a service with only two mourners in attendance. Driven by curiosity, he decided to simulate his own death. One day, he shared a photo of himself outside a hospital in São Paulo on social media, and the following day, he announced his demise.

In due course, Lemos organized a wake, and then he walked in while it was in progress. Suddenly everyone saw him there. It was not the proudest moment of his life. Confusion reigned. Mourners were, by and large, furious. “I spent one day sad and the other very indignant,” said one old friend – who now wants nothing more to do with Lemos.

A recently launched podcast titled “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wake,” hosted by Kathy Burke, explores a unique concept. In each episode, celebrities are invited to envision their own untimely demise, taking control of the arrangements, selecting their preferred method of passing, curating playlists, and even listening to pre-prepared eulogies from their friends.

It’s all fascinating, but in the real world – the memory of who we are is left up to others, usually our family members, who will curate our memory into the future. And those memories do not necessarily represent the whole truth. Even a combination of many memories from different perspectives does not represent the whole truth, despite the fact that no two people will ever remember the person in exactly the same way.

How do we reconcile this phenomenon with the foundation of our religion? Isn’t Judaism built on the accurate transmission of a collective narrative from generation to generation? The answer is actually “no” – and while there are certain historical facts within our tradition that are accepted as unequivocal truths, many details of events and people in our past are the subject of debates or even vastly different versions – or even fanciful ideas that are jarring and cannot make sense.

Was Moshe Rabbeinu – 10 amot (15 foot) tall, and did his face shine like the sun? Or is it just that Chazal wish us to remember him as having been larger than life, and as someone whose spread light like the sun?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 92b) discusses Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones. In the text of the biblical book, Ezekiel is transported to a valley filled with dry and lifeless bones. God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live again, to which Ezekiel responds that only God knows. God commands Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones, and as he does, the bones come together, tendons and flesh cover them, and they are infused with breath, becoming a vast army.

According to one interpretation, the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision represent the Israelites from the tribe of Ephraim who died in an attempt to conquer the land of Israel before the appointed time. The narrative suggests that these Ephraimites, motivated by their eagerness and impatience, tried to enter and possess the land before it was divinely ordained.

But their premature actions led to their downfall and eventual death, symbolized by the dry bones in the prophecy – only to be revived by Ezekiel in this miraculous event. So – did this event actually happen? Did Ezekiel see the dry bones come back to life?

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemiah have a discussion that indicates they believe that the whole passage is a metaphor. It never happened.

But then the Gemara takes a strange turn – Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Yossi HaGelili, seems to disagree with them. According to him, the dead whom Ezekiel revived later got married and gave birth to sons and daughters. Then, suddenly, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira rises to his feet and says: I am one of their descendants, and these are the tefillin that my grandfather bequeathed to me from them.

What are they talking about? Is it a metaphor or not? Surely it must be. So how can Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira be descended from a metaphor? How does what he says make any sense?

The Rashba, in his Chiddushei Aggadot, sheds light on the matter. He suggests that certain aggadic passages are not conveyed because they happened, but because they could have happened. And because they could have happened, they are important.

In a sense, they are more than a mere metaphor. These narratives that could have happened serve to teach us lessons and convey profound messages, whether they represent actual historical events or not.

The Rashba is telling us that the historical factuality of these accounts may not be as significant as the enduring messages they carry. Whether or not R. Yehuda ben Beteira is descended from the “dry bones”, the importance of the lessons we derive from his statement is what count. We are using an unusual form of idealized memory as the method by which we uphold our faith.

Because if memory serves a purpose, it is there to promote a better version of ourselves than we are now. The opposite is far more common and much more dangerous. The use of distorted memories to promote hateful narratives and destructive ideals.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, one of the great Tannaim, testified that he was a direct descendant of those from the tribe of Ephraim who had been revived. His message is – my ancestors may have not heeded the word of God when they tried to conquer Israel, but when they came back to life, their descendants went on to become observers of Torah and mitzvot, and some of them even reached the level of a Talmudic sage.

This understanding also applies to Yizkor. Yizkor is when we all remember our loved ones in the most positive way. We connect our present praiseworthy actions and our future good deeds to the legacy they left behind.

Our enhanced memories of them may contain a mix of reality and embellishment, and we may truly be imagining them purely as the best versions of themselves. But if that’s the case, it is exactly the point. Whether these memories are accurate or enhanced – if they serve as an inspiration for us to become better individuals, then our remembering them will surely elevate their souls, as well as make us better people.

The saying “history belongs to the victor” highlights the influence wielded by those who emerge victorious in conflicts or power struggles, allowing them to shape and mold the narrative of historical events. But it is crucial that we remain mindful of what it means to be the “victor” – because in a sense we are all victors. If we outlive someone, we are the “victor”, and now their history belongs to us.

We have the power to shape our memories and perceptions of them going forward. And when we choose to remember those we have lost in the most positive light possible, we are not only honoring their legacy – we are also reflecting our own values. By cherishing and focusing on their positive qualities and trying to emulate them, we demonstrate how important it is for us to perpetuate a legacy of goodness, and we can inspire others to do the same.

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