Yizkor Sermon 5779
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth
My grandparents, Hans and Edith Wachtel, lived at 1652 Amherst Ave, just off of Bundy, near Santa Monica. I remember their house vividly, with the pool in the backyard where many a lazy Sunday was spent, the funky orange carpet, the brown/orange linoleum in the kitchen, the long walkway from the front gate, past the side of the house to the front door. The house oozed and breathed the 70’s. There were objects and pictures from their many world travels, a vase from Picasso, and lining the hallway, ancient fragments of cloth from Peru.
My grandfather passed away in 1997, but we would still go and visit that house often. Even after I moved away from Los Angeles, whenever I would visit, I would always make a point to come and visit my grandmother at that amazing memory filled house.
When Edith passed away in 2012, my family gathered there at the house one last time, even though, by this point, none of us lived in Los Angeles anymore. I came from London, my brother from Washington, DC, my parents from Vancouver, and my sister from Atlanta. Upon entering the house, I distinctly remember this overwhelming feeling of foreignness, of not feeling at home, already it felt different. My brother and I spent the night there after the funeral, but it was no longer my grandparent’s house. Now, it was a structure, filled with things that we needed to go through, to catalogue, to divide up. There were quite a few heated discussions about who would take what. What did I hope to take away from that house? After much toing and froing, the only things that I took from that house were 2 objects that I still have with me: a back scratcher and a photo of Hans and Edith, one of the few where Edith was actually smiling. That picture sits on the bookshelf, overlooking my dining room table now.
I had this ill at ease feeling that the entire essence of Hans and Edith’s life was being distilled down to a few objects and mementos. Or was it?
The author of one of the most famous pieces of the High Holiday Liturgy, Une Tane Tokef, speaks of the awesome power of the day, the yearning for meaning, the hope that all is not futile. The author writes:
“Man is founded in dust and ends in dust. He lays down his soul to bring home bread. He is like a broken shard, like grass dried up, like a faded flower, like a fleeting shadow, like a passing cloud, like a breath of wind, like whirling dust, like a dream that slips away.”
This is not the way we like to think of ourselves. We like the feeling that we are important and that we make a lasting impact in the world, or at the very least, on the lives of our loved ones and the people we interact with. When we pass away, what remains? Is it simply the objects we leave behind, bequeathing to our family and friends?
On this day, the Day of Atonement, there is an understanding that we are as if dead, and we are here praying for our very lives.
At this time of year, on this day, at this time, we are at the height of discomfort. We are tired, we are potentially hungry, rubbed raw, looking to achieve a sense of…what? Why now, do we pause to think of loved ones no longer here with us in this world? What are we hoping to take away with us as we are very close to ending Yom Kippur?
Is the author of Une Tane Tokef, positing that nothing physical remains, only a “fleeting shadow” or a “dream that slips away”? Or is he giving voice to a fear that is shared by many, that when we are gone, nothing will remain?
Many of us fervently want to believe that we will be remembered, that our essence will carry on.
The things that remain behind, the objects, are simply that, things, if there is no context attached to them. If we can infuse them with memories or attach emotion to them, then they are valued above all, their worth beyond any price.
As we all stand at the precipice of the New Year, thinking of the loved ones no longer here, I take heart in reading the lines from Une Tane Tokef. I accept that there are things that will fade away as a dream, but there are also memories that are vivid and real, substantive and concrete. I pray here today, at this time, in Yizkor, knowing that I have not allowed the memories of my loved ones, Hans and Edith, and so many others, to simply slip away. The things I carried away from that house are so much more than a photo and back scratcher. They are the embodiment of the memories I have for my grandparents. They serve as the starting place to share who they were with my children, to ensure that their memories will always be firmly here, in this world, and not an after thought that slips away. I use their memories to help guide me in this coming year, to give me strength when I am at my heights, and also when at my weakest, humbled to my lowest, such as at the closing of Yom Kippur.
Will this Yom Kippur fade away as a dream, a distant memory? Or will it become a transformative point? Will the memory of your loved one be like a fleeting shadow? Or will you use that object to anchor your memory and keep the soul of your loved alive?
G’mar Hatimah Tovah