Sunday, October 7, 2012

Yizkor thoughts: the war against forgetting

Tomorrow is the holiday of Shmini Atzeret and with it another Yizkor, the fourth and final of this year of saying kaddish. Here are some thoughts as I enter into this day.

Yizkor means remember. It's message is more than that, however. It means "remember!!!" You must. You have no choice. It's your duty. Either because you want to. Or because guilt is making you feel you have to. It doesn't matter. Just remember.

Why do we need to be ordered to remember? Because it's so easy to forget. So so easy. Really, forgetting is easier than remembering. I truly believe that forgetting is built into our true nature as a human being. If we remembered everything, we couldn't function. If we remembered every trauma we endured growing up, every slight, every injury, physical and emotional, we'd all be damaged goods.
What happens when we cut ourselves. We heal. A scar is left. You can't really see the scar unless you look close. Only a remnant of the cut is left. We are back to "normal." What happens if you break a bone. Slowly the bones heal, usually with no long term negative effect. perhaps they are even stronger than they were before the break.

How do people who lived through traumatic events rebuild their lives? To ponder of the amazing stories of Holocaust survivors and what they endured and then what they were able to accomplish afterwards. They couldn't have succeeded without forgetting or repressing or somehow shoving aside the horrible memories.

Maybe this is what Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is talking about. In Chapter 2, verse 16, he writes (using Robert Alter's excellent translation): "For there is no remembrance of the wise, as with the fool, forever. Since in the days to come, all will be forgotten." And again in Chapter 9, verse 5: "For the living know that they will die, and the dead know nothing, for they no longer have any reward, for their memory is forgotten."

But we Jews are commanded to remember, to fight against Kohelet's fatalism. We are called upon to remember national events such as the Exodus from Egypt and what Amalek did to us when in the along the way from Egypt. As we begin the new year on Rosh Hashana, on the day we call Yom HaZikaron, the day of Remembrance, we pray that we remember our covenant with God and that God remembers us for good. And, through kaddish and Yizkor, we are called remember where we came from, those who brought us into this world, to whom we are eternally attached to spiritually.

When your parent dies, you say kaddish for nearly a year. The kaddish has many functions, but the main one is to keep the memory of your parent close to your heart, to fight the battle against denial and forgetting. And after the kaddish year is over, there is Yizkor four times every year to continue your battle against denial and forgetting. Originally, Yizkor was recited only once a year, on Yom Kippur. At some point the Rabbis instituted it for each of the Three Festival holidays, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Maybe they felt that once a year was not enough.

Every time we pray, we begin with the words "Zocher Chasdai Avot" (the one who remembers the kindnesses of the forefathers). God, we pray, will remember our ancestors, for their lives are worth remembering. Through Yizkor, our job is to join God in the war against denial and forgetting and to remember the goodnesses of our own parents, how much they meant to us and how deeply they will always be with us.

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