"May their memory be for a blessing."
There are hugs and handshakes and well-intentioned wishes that the family might "know only simchas" while one person stands silently, apart from the crowd, looking intently at the freshly shoveled grave. As everyone else departs, the rabbi walks over to the family member, and she gently places her hand on the man's shoulder, a gesture of comfort.
"Why do we always say, 'may their memory be for a blessing?'" the man asks. And then, choking on his words, he looks at the rabbi, his eyes welling with tears. Glancing at the grave he says quietly, "My memories of her aren't a blessing."
The rabbi stares at the man, grasping for the right words, for any words, in a moment for which there are no words. And before she can say, I'm sorry, or, I'm here with you, the words escape her. "You said yitgadal anyway," she offers, recalling how moments earlier, the man joined with his family in reciting Kaddish. The rabbi cups her hand to her mouth, worried that she might have misspoken.
Emotions swirl within the man. Over seconds that feel like forty years, the man wipes his eyes, and sighs heavily. "Of course I said Kaddish. What choice do I have?"
The rabbi wonders what if anything, to say next. She knows preciously little about this man's journey, about his memories, and it isn't her place to pry. The tradition commands the man to say Kaddish, but the tradition commands lots of things. Living in an age of personal choice, she understands that no one is going to tell this man what he should or should not do, or what he might choose. She shakes her head, exhales, and with words failing her, she offers, "You can choose to continue living."
The man nods, his eyes lighting up with an intermingling of long-held grief and breathtaking relief.
* * *
The unspeakable challenge of facing life's less-than-positive-sometimes-awful-even-traumatic moments doesn't often happen graveside. More often than not, conversations like these are relegated to the rabbi's office, and then referred out to a therapist who specializes in grief counseling. Most deaths bring sadness, some provide opportunities to honor a special person's life, some carry inexplicable tragedy, and others are weighted with unexpressed confusion. And yet, ultimately, what choice do we have in any of these circumstances of loss, except to choose to continue living? There is great strength, power, and healing that can come from saying yitgadal anyway.
But where Kaddish, which concludes nearly every service, is well known, and often recited, the origins of Yizkor, our memorial prayers, are addressed less. The Artscroll Siddur explains, "The earliest source of the Yizkor custom is Midrash Tanchuma Haazinu, which cites the custom of recalling the departed and pledging charity on their behalf on Yom Kippur. Ashkenazic Jewry's custom of reciting Yizkor on the three pilgrimage festivals [Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot] is of a later origin, possibly the time of the Crusades when bloody massacres wiped out many Jewish communities and seriously hurt many others. The three festivals, which the Torah ordains as times of charity, were chosen as times to remember the dead and pray that the generosity of the living should be a source of merit for their souls."
But some of us have memories we wish we did not recall. The Yizkor prayer begins with the words Yizkor Elohim, asking, inviting, and perhaps beseeching God to participate in the act of remembrance. Faced with our most fraught emotions, burdened with sensitivity, we ascribe the duty of memory to God. It is as if we are saying, "Here, You take it," because some memories are too much for us to hold just by ourselves.
But then, even as we bring our partnership with God into this intimate space, we recognize that we have a duty as well -- sheh b'li neder e-tain tz'daka. Without making a formal vow, we indicate our intention to perform acts of justice, righteousness, and charity. Another siddur uses the language hin'ni nodev tz'daka, suggesting through the Hebrew, a voluntary contribution, a monetary offering. Jewish tradition regards the recitation of a vow as a serious legal matter,but the use of the expressions "without making a formal vow" or "I hereby volunteer," suggest as well a sense of "When I'm ready, I will try. I'm not promising. It's going to take me some time to get my head around this and I'm really not sure I can follow through because it hurts too much right now, but giving tz'dakah, whether through a charitable donation or a good deed is the best thing that I can do."
Acts of tz'dakah are life giving, regardless of whether they are performed in honor of or in memory of someone. Yizkor doesn't request or focus on forgiveness. Yizkor doesn't address the resolution of grief after-the-fact that only we can find within ourselves. Yizkor reminds us of our duty to perform goodness, to be the best we can be, perhaps even to be better than those who came before us. Machzor Lev Shalem teaches that Yizkor was originally called seder matnat yad, "the service of expressing generosity on behalf of those who have died."
Rather than remaining beholden to the pain of our memories, committing to act and contribute differently, with generosity, can create a healthier future for us and for others. Though the impact of another person's life can be felt within us long after they are dead, and what happened to us truly matters, what is also important is how we choose to live.
We can live with spiteful words and hateful thoughts. We can allow anger to consume us, to blaze within. Sometimes, such rage is exactly what we need to feel in order to effect healing; there is no time frame for each person's unique journey. But remaining embittered indefinitely sends the message that we are permitting pain and victimization to win.
Memory is an indication that we are still alive, that we are the ones who are here. No matter what has happened to us, we have the power, the opportunity, and the choice to determine how we will live. Our bodies may bear the sins of what others have done, but by remembering we demonstrate that no one can triumph over us.
Reciting Kaddish affirms our willingness to ascend higher and higher, to break the silence of our grief, to praise God and reclaim the gift of life beyond our own experiences. Kaddish is the ultimate indication that life goes on. Saying yitgadal anyway, even when memory isn't a blessing, especially when memory isn't a blessing, shows our commitment, to rise with and above our hurt and desperation, and to move toward creating a better world. For what choice do we have? We have the choice to continue living.
Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei rabba.
Rabbinical Council of America Edition of the Artscroll Siddur, pp. 810-811.
Wording of the Yizkor prayer per the Artscroll Siddur, pp. 810-812.
Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, p. 194.
Machzor Lev Shalem, p. 291