Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
APRIL 15, 2001 22 NISAN 5761
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Synagogue attendance always swells at Yizkor. No matter how attenuated our sense of being Jewish, we are drawn back for a moment to offer a prayer ("may God remember") in memory of those we have loved and lost. The observance of Yahrzeit and Yizkor remains hallowed. The proximity of death still fills us with reverence if not foreboding.
The memorial service is recited in the synagogue four times a year - on Yom Kippur and on the last days of the pilgrimage festivals of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot. Like the custom of Yahrzeit, Yizkor is a product of the Crusades which cast a pall on the small communities of Ashkenazi Jewry scattered across Western and Central Europe in the centuries following 1096. Religious fanaticism fomented the teaching of contempt, contracted economic opportunity, increased the burden of arbitrary taxation and constantly threatened to erupt in persecution and expulsion. With martyrdom in the air, Jews adopted prayers and practices to commemorate the victims and socialize the young. Thus many a community kept on the almemor in its synagogue (the stand from which services were led and the Torah read) a memorbuch (whence the name) with burgeoning lists of local members and renowned sages who had perished because they refused to convert. At the Yizkor service, where these names were read aloud, the community would grieve for the past even as it prepared for the future.
My objective, however, is not to dwell on the genesis of Yizkor but its format. Specifically, I wish to show how the memorial service came to be associated with the final days of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot. Yom Kippur constitutes less of a problem because according to an older midrash, commemorating the dead and giving charity in their behalf had already found its way into the unfolding ritual of the day (Tanhuma, Haazinu, 1). But what determined that the impulse to mourn would gain expression in the liturgy at the end of the pilgrimage festivals? There is nothing self-evident about the location. The answer, I submit, reveals the power of texts in a book-based religion to shape a new practice once the need for it is felt.
In my father's old mahzor (Heidenheim) from which I daven on the holidays, the brief Yizkor service bears an utterly strange name, "seder matnat yad - the order of giving." Of German origin, the Mahzor seemed to stress the importance of giving charity each time we intone a prayer for the departed. But beyond that, the nomenclature points to the reason that Yizkor was affixed to the last days of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot, although it took years of puzzlement on my part before I saw the ingenious connection.
The unexpected German name for Yizkor actually derives from the identical Torah reading designated for all three days. The festival is concluded appropriately enough by a short section of Deuteronomy which summarizes the religious calendar of ancient Israel (15:19-16:17, extended to 14:22 on Shabbat). The final passage, in accord with Deuteronomy's preoccupation to centralize the cult, emphasizes the obligation of all males to journey to the national shrine on each of the three pilgrimage festivals (hence the name). Moreover, "they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift (ke-matnat yado), according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you (16:16b-17)." As my German Mahzor makes abundantly clear through its nomenclature, the link between Yizkor and the pilgrimage festivals is the act of giving. In neither case are we to approach God "empty-handed" The Torah reading provided an elegant matrix for the implanting and sanctifying of a sorely needed liturgical innovation.
In our day, the meaning of Yizkor is more personal than communal. But it is still saliently marked by the giving of charity. Each time we intone a Yizkor prayer for a departed loved one, we pledge ourselves to perform an act of charity. To be sure, the underlying theology has changed. In the midrash, the living redeem the dead, that is, every memorial prayer with its accompanying charity enhances the welfare of the deceased in the world beyond. More pointedly, the giving is what makes the prayer work. For us, the prayer is no longer an act of intercession. The giving improves the lot of the living. If anything, it is the values of the departed that intercede to inspire in us acts of self-transcendence. A slight modification in the traditional text of the Yizkor prayer reflects the shift in worldliness.
Yet what remains constant is the connection between remembering and giving. Ritual produces social capital. Time and again in Judaism, the social and moral values are inculcated and transmitted indirectly through purely ceremonial instruments. Attending a minyan impresses on us the primacy of community and the obligation each of us has to sustain it. Making a Seder reminds us of the enduring ideal of family unity, while facing east when we pray serves to keep Jerusalem and Israel ever in our minds. It is not for naught that each Shabbat morning after the Torah reading we offer a special prayer (misheberakh) for all "those who unite to establish synagogues for prayer, and those who enter them to pray (i.e. to make a minyan), and those who give funds for heat and light, and wine for kiddush and Havdalah, bread for the wayfarer and charity to the poor; and all who devotedly involve themselves with the needs of the community and the Land of Israel (Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, p. 148)."
These are the values, skills and social networks that are acquired by living Judaism in the framework of a synagogue community. There is no divide in Judaism between ritual and morality. The former is the seedbed for the latter. Ideally, our relationship to God should determine our relationship to the world in which we live.