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Reflections on the Yizkor Service

May 2011  

Last week I attended the ceremony commemorating Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror at my son’s school. Every school, every city, every small community, has a ceremony commemorating the country’s heroes– those who fell in the battlefields of our endlessly long list of wars, and those who fell because they were walking on the wrong street, riding the wrong bus, guarding the wrong mall, standing outside the wrong pizza parlor… when a terrorist decided to strike out and destroy. Sadly, every one of those schools, those cities and communities has lists of their own fallen classmates, colleagues, neighbors and brothers. Some years I go down to our local cemetery for the 11 A.M. siren. This siren pierces the air throughout the country, stopping everyone where they are, as they stand in respectful attention. The country shuts down as everyone spends their afternoons visiting their loved ones at local and military cemeteries.

This year I wanted to go to Netanel’s school because his sixth grade class was in charge of the ceremony. The open plaza was crammed tight with hundreds of elementary school aged boys, chattering away as children will do when released from the confines of the classroom. And then the school choir began singing, “The Sand Remembers” and the noise abated. And then the siren began, harsh in its volume and everyone stood, heads bowed, and there was absolute silence. And I found myself thinking of the lyrics of the song. Those lyrics! About the sands that get washed away by the waves… how the sands return to the depths… how everything gets extinguished like a candle in the night… just like the lives of the youth that suddenly meet their end. That’s why we need Memorial Day. To remember.

The Jewish religion places great importance on the value of remembering those who are no longer with us. When the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror began with a siren at 8 P.M., thousands of us gathered in an outdoor square… to remember. Names upon names were read out, of every soldier or civilian related to a resident of Karnei Shomron, who was killed in Israel’s wars or who was a victim of terror. Every name since Israel became a state in 1948. The list went on and on, a candle lit for each name. I knew too many of the faces broadcast on the screen, and it doesn’t get easier.

But it helps to smile through our tears as Chava Shatsky speaks about her children who married and grandchildren who were born since her daughter Keren was killed by a suicide bomber at age 14, eight years ago. It helps to smile through our tears as Henia Chalamish announces how her son-in-law recently remarried after his wife—her daughter — and their three children were murdered in their home in Itamar in 2002. Stories are told about the victims, old letters discovered and shared, memories of friends and family read aloud. To remember.

And prayers are said. There is a very special prayer called “Yizkor” and it is said during this Memorial Day all over the country. Yizkor in Hebrew means “Remember”. It is not only the first word in the prayer; it also represents the overall theme of the prayer. We pray to G-d to remember the souls of our relatives and friends who have died. When we pray, we believe we are bringing merit to the departed, elevating their souls in heaven. A central part of Yizkor is pledging to give charity in memory of the deceased, performing a good deed, something the departed can no longer do. By performing this deed in the name of the deceased, credit for the donation is shared with the deceased so the status of their memory is enhanced. When physical life ends, only the body dies, but the soul ascends to the realm of the spirit, where it can regularly attain higher levels of purity and holiness.

“May G-d remember the soul of he who has gone to his world, because I will donate charity for his sake. In this merit, may his soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden; and let us say, Amen.”

Yizkor is also recited on Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day which we commemorated only a week ago, those words saying just what we need to say. We will remember and never forget the 6,000,000 slaughtered. We will not allow the careless, methodical way they were killed to let us forget their memories.

Some say that Yizkor became a part of the prayer service during the Crusades of the 11th century, when so many Jews were slaughtered by the Crusaders as they made their way to the Holy Land. Some scholars believe the Yizkor actually predates this and was written around 165 B.C.E. when Judah Maccabee and his fellow soldiers prayed for their fallen comrades.

This prayer is now a regular part of the prayer service, recited in the synagogue four other times during the year, following the Torah reading: on the last day of Passover, on Pentecost, on Shemini Atzeret at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, and on The Day of Atonement. There is something about this prayer that pulls at the heartstrings of even the most unaffiliated Jew, and on those days, all places of worship are filled, sometimes with people who haven’t set foot in a synagogue since last Yizkor service. Why do we feel the need to remember? Why do we feel the need to ask G-d to remember? Perhaps it is because we are a people who have been persecuted so steadily throughout history and we always feel our existence as a nation to be a struggle. So we must remember our past. Every Jewish soul who was part of our nation. Because only then can we continue and look forward. There is a Yizkor version for a father, a mother and for other family members. It is customary for those with both parents alive to leave the synagogue during the Yizkor service. But everyone makes sure to file back in to say the Yizkor for the martyrs of the Holocaust. For they are relatives of us all.

There are two short passages that introduce the Yizkor in some Prayer books and the words are poignant and ring true:

“Man is like a breath, his days are like a fleeting shadow. In the morning it blossoms and is rejuvenated, by evening it is cut down and brittle… Then the dust returns to the ground, as it was, and the spirit returns to G-d Who gave it.

“Who sits in the refuge of the Most High, he shall dwell in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of Hashem, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my G-d, I will trust in Him.’

“You shall not fear the terror of night: nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that walks in gloom; nor the destroyer who lays waste at noon. Let a thousand encamp at your side and a myriad at your right hand, but to you they shall not approach. You will merely peer with your eyes, and you will see the retribution of the wicked. Because ‘You, G-d, are my refuge,’ You have made the Most High your dwelling place. No evil shall befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent. He will charge His angels for you, to protect you in all your ways. For he has yearned for Me and I will deliver him; I will elevate him because he knows My Name. He will call upon Me and I will answer him.”

It is so wonderful that as we remember death—with all its brutality, finality and pain, we picture G-d as our refuge, our solace, our protection.

The concluding section of the Yizkor service is called “O G-d, Full of Mercy” and when Netanel’s distinguished, well-loved teacher stood up and began, his rich baritone voice filled the air and all fidgeting stopped as the holy words soared up to the heavens.

“Oh G-d, full of mercy, Who dwells on high, grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence—in the lofty levels of the holy and the pure ones, who shine like the glow of the firmament- for the souls of the holy and pure who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned, and strangled for the sanctification of the Name… May the Master of mercy shelter them in the shelter of His wings for eternity; and may He bind their souls in the bond of life. G-d is their heritage, and may they repose in peace on their resting places.”

The words are chilling but comforting. All those who are no longer with us, who suffered untimely violent deaths or who passed away peacefully in their sleep… they are with G-d now, our merciful        G-d, who will care for them in their eternal sleep.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities
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