April 18th, 2024

In the Ashkenazi tradition, the Yizkor service stands out as an emotional highlight of each festival. On specially designated days, those who have lost parents, spouses, siblings, or children remain in the synagogue to recite memorial prayers, while those whose parents are still alive respectfully leave the sanctuary. The Hebrew word “Yizkor,” meaning “will remember,” initiates each prayer, emphasizing the enduring memory of those who have passed away and ensuring their remembrance even in their absence.

In the introduction to my latest book, Hearts & Minds on Jewish Festivals, I explore how deeply personal memories integrate into the observance of festivals. Reflecting on memories of shared experiences with my family throughout the Jewish calendar year over many years, I highlight the profound impact these memories have each time these festivals roll around again. Each treasured moment recalled enriches and profoundly enhances our celebrations:

“These memories and so many more turn each festival and each significant Jewish date into a rich blend of history, tradition, Jewish laws and customs, memories, nostalgia, and new experiences. Every wine stain on the pages of the Haggadah we use, every forgotten High Holidays schedule tucked into the pages of the maḥzor, the special yomtov-connected drawings our kids made in preschool that reappear at the relevant time each year, the smell of yomtov food cooking in the kitchen—all these elements form a vivid mosaic of our Jewish experience, adding color, context, and depth to the practical aspects of the festivals and notable Jewish dates that punctuate our lives.”

These reflections invite us to consider the dual nature of memory—with its inevitable mix of accuracy and embellishment—and the significant roles our remembered versions of events and experiences play in shaping our lives.

Psychology researcher and science communicator Dr. Julia Shaw, known for her exploration of memory and particularly false memories, addresses these themes in her book The Memory Illusion. She investigates how memories can be distorted, fabricated, and influenced by various factors.

Dr. Shaw explores the phenomenon of people recalling events that never happened, discussing the implications for fields like criminal law and our understanding of personal history. Interestingly, she suggests that these alterations in memory are not always detrimental; often, they serve to highlight the most favorable aspects of our loved ones and our past.

In eulogies, we often commemorate our loved ones in the most favorable light possible. The memories we recall are inherently selective and somewhat distorted, as they portray an idealized version of our departed loved ones—a version we all hope to be remembered by one day, when it is our turn to be eulogized.

When someone highlights less flattering aspects of a deceased person during a eulogy, it can shock the audience. I recall a funeral years ago for a university professor of mine, a celebrated scholar of history. His grandson’s eulogy began by acknowledging his grandfather’s reputation as a brilliant intellect and a fount of knowledge – then it shifted to a more personal note: “But there was more to him than that,” he added. “I will always remember him as the old man with dandruff on his jacket, who could be quite irritable and impatient. That was my grandpa.”

As he spoke, I couldn’t help but think, along with everyone else, “Is this really the memory to share at his funeral?”

The podcast “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wake,” hosted by English actress Kathy Burke, is premised on a novel concept: “If you could plan your perfect death, what would you do?”

Each episode features celebrities who are asked to imagine their own untimely demise, take charge of their hypothetical funeral arrangements, choose their preferred way to go, create playlists, and even listen to eulogies prepared in advance by their friends.

While intriguing, this concept starkly contrasts with reality—where the memory of who we are is shaped by others, typically our family members, who preserve and interpret our legacies. Nevertheless, these curated memories, richly assembled from diverse perspectives, still do not capture the complete truth. Despite varied viewpoints, no two people will ever remember someone in exactly the same way.

During our festive gatherings over Yom Tov, we often find ourselves immersed in family stories, both old and new. As we enjoy each other’s company and celebrate together, these time-honed tales are shared and reshaped with each retelling. Over the years, details are embellished, and characters grow larger than life, creating increasingly engaging narratives.

This process not only entertains but also strengthens family bonds, imparts values, and fosters a sense of continuity and belonging. Enriched memories become an important part of our collective family heritage, celebrated during these special occasions.

The Yizkor service utilizes the power of memory to connect us with those who have passed on. We engage deeply with our memories, idealizing and appreciating the positive aspects while overlooking the flaws. This idealization is not without merit, as highlighted by a remarkable passage from the Talmud.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 92b) unpacks Ezekiel’s seminal “dry bones” prophecy. According to the biblical narrative (Ez. 37:1-14), Ezekiel is brought to a valley filled with dry, lifeless bones and asked by God if these bones can live again. He responds that only God knows, prompting God to command Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones. Miraculously, as Ezekiel prophesies, the bones reassemble, grow flesh, and are infused with life, becoming a vast army.

This vision is interpreted in the Talmud as symbolizing the Israelites from the tribe of Ephraim who, driven by impatience, had tried to conquer the land of Israel prematurely at the dawn of Jewish history. Their failure and demise are represented by the dry bones, which are then miraculously revived by Ezekiel.

The question is: Did this event actually happen, or is Ezekiel’s vision merely symbolic? Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemiah view the entire episode as a metaphor, suggesting it never actually occurred. Then, unexpectedly, Rabbi Eleazar, son of Rabbi Yosi HaGelili, asserts that the narrative is true, and that the revived bones went on to marry and have children.

This claim is further complicated by Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, who claims to be descended from those supposedly metaphorical figures, and adds that “these are the tefillin that my grandfather bequeathed to me from them.”

The thirteenth-century rabbinic luminary, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba), clarifies this debate by suggesting that some aggadic passages are significant not necessarily because they occurred, but because they represent events that could have transpired. This idea means these stories transcend mere metaphor. They are potential narratives that impart lessons and carry deep messages, regardless of their historical authenticity.

In the specific case of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira claiming to have inherited tefillin from descendants of those revived by Ezekiel, the Rashba seemingly interprets this not as a literal historical claim but as a narrative device intended to convey deeper truths or lessons about faith, continuity, and the transmission of tradition. The focus is on the value and impact of the story rather than its factual accuracy.

This approach to memory and narrative is crucial, especially in prayers like the Yizkor service, where we remember our deceased loved ones in the best possible light. It’s not about facts, or about history – but about values and heritage.

By remembering our loved ones as the best versions of themselves—whether these memories are entirely accurate or somewhat enhanced—we not only honor their legacy but also inspire ourselves to aspire to these ideals. This process elevates the souls of the departed and enriches our own lives, demonstrating the power of memory to shape not only our perception of the past but also our actions in the present and our aspirations for the future.

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