The Purpose of Memory

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The Yizkor (memorial) service is an essential part of the liturgy of most important Jewish holidays.  The following article explores the meaning of the Yizkor in the modern world. Some  of the customs mentioned toward the end of the piece--such as remembering friends during Yizkor and attending the Yizkor service as a remembrance of the Holocaust--are most prevalent in liberal Jewish communities. But most of the themes of the article are universal to Judaism, and the article offers a thoughtful and moving take on this emotional service.  It is reprinted with permission from Gates of the Season: A Guide to the Jewish Year (Central Conference of American Rabbis).

Oneof the most moving portions of the Yom Kippur and festival worship services is the Memorial Service (Hazkarat Neshamot). Popularly known as Yizkor after the opening words of the silent devotion "Yizkor Elohim"("May God remember [the soul of]. . ."), it emphasizes the transience of life, our yearning for eternity, and the inspiration provided by the memory of the deceased. The service reminds us that time moves swiftly forward and bids us, "number our days that we may grow wise in heart" (Psalm 90:12).

yizkor memorialMemory is a precious gift, for it transforms the discrete moments of our lives and events in history into an unfolding narrative. We become acutely aware of being a part of an eternal people that began a spiritual journey in the distant past with its goal to be realized in the remote future. Through the words and music of the service we become conscious not only of our own mortality but also of the sacred opportunity that we have in our brief lives to perform acts of sanctification which may improve our lot and the lot of humanity generally.

The life of the Jewish people is composed of sacred moments which, when recalled, inspire us to live our lives according to certain Judaic values. For example, the bitter experience of slavery is tasted in the eating of maror [bitter herbs]on Pesach. By recreating the sense of physical and spiritual bondage we commit ourselves to an ethical system which teaches us that freedom is essential for human development. How we act toward others must be judged in the light of the verse, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 6:21).

On Shavuot, when we hear the Ten Commandments read, we are transported backward to Mt. Sinai and utter in our hearts the ancient formula of commitment Na-aseh Venishma, "We will diligently hearken" (Exodus 24:7). The ancient covenant is renewed through memory. By observing the mitzvot [commandments] of Shavuot our individual memory becomes part of the collective memory of the Jewish people.

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