Our Torah reading this week, taken from the parsha Ki Tissa, ends by mentioning Pesach and Shavuot, two of the pilgrimage holidays during which our ancestors would travel to Jerusalem and bring offerings of the first fruits of the soil. The third pilgrimage holiday is Sukkot.
Linked in ancient times by the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, these three holidays are linked in modern times by the recitation of Yizkor.
The Yizkor service is a pilgrimage into memory that we take four times a year, including on Yom Kippur. We remember the souls of those who have left us and do tzedakah in the form of giving charity or giving of ourselves in their memory.
Years ago, I sent a query out to the listserv at the Conservative synagogue with which I was affiliated, asking people to share what they think of when they think of the Yizkor prayer. Several people were troubled by what they saw as a request to give money on behalf of our departed.
The traditional Yizkor prayer states in Hebrew: “Hinini noder(et) tzedakah b’ad hazkarat nishmato” — “In tribute to his/her memory, I pledge to perform acts of tzedakah.” The Conservative siddur interprets tzedakah as charity and goodness — but traditionally, tzedakah in this prayer has been seen as money as well.
One person wrote about not needing the siddur to tell them when to give tzedakah and expressed discomfort with the idea of “buying their relative’s way into heaven.”
I decided that this aspect of the Yizkor prayer is a perfect example of the layering and adapting that happens to Jewish tradition.
Why has Judaism survived for so long? One reason is because ours is a religion whose traditions are constantly transformed or layered upon so that they resonate with people throughout the ages. This concept of tzedakah for the dead is one such example.
Put another way, one can say that when someone dies and charity is given in that person’s name or a good deed is performed in his or her memory, the person is in fact living on — whether it is here in our hearts and minds or in heaven. Memory of that individual, the example this person set in life and the lessons he or she taught us live on and influence our behavior.
All from this idea of performing good deeds in someone’s memory.
While one does not need a minyan to recite Yizkor, saying Yizkor does remind us that we are part of a community. So many have no one to remember them. We remember them all as a people, a community that takes care of its own, in death as well as in life.
One congregant on the listserv pointed out that Jews all over the world were doing the same thing that he would be doing — saying Yizkor.
And, he wrote, “And I sometimes wonder: Will my children be at Yizkor for me after I have died? I hope so — not for my sake, but for theirs.”
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila.