I remember the first time I recited El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the deceased. It was during my preparatory year in rabbinical school. A friend of mine in the graduate school had lost her mother. They were unaffiliated and had no rabbi to turn to. So they asked me to do the funeral. I recall practicing the paragraph over and over again and being struck by the words. Since the day of that funeral, I have found reciting El Malei Rachamim to be one of the most moving parts of being clergy.
The end of El Malei Rachamim asks that the souls of our beloved departed be bound up in the bond of life. U’tzror bitzror hachaim et nishmatam. There is something quite comforting in these words and the plaintive melody with which they are chanted. Many of us find solace in the idea that even though our loved ones are no longer physically alive, something of them remains living. And yet, this phrase, bound up in the bond of life is an enigma. For while its emotional impact is clear, it’s actual meaning is not at all evident.
What exactly do we mean when we pray that those whom we have lost will be bound up in the bond of life? Does it mean they are living in olam ha-bah, an eternal existence in the world to come? Does it mean they are rejoined with the infinite oneness of the kadosh Baruch Hu? And perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for those of us still living in this world, those of us who will invoke the names of our loved ones when we recite El Malei Rahamim on their behalf?
Many scholars believe this phrase, u’tzror bitzror hachaim et nishmatam, bound up in the bond of life, is an allusion to the pastoral practices of the Ancient Near East, the cultural milieu in which our Israelite ancestors lived. In order to keep track of their flocks, shepherds would place a pebble into a bundle for each sheep that went out to pasture. Then, as the sheep returned, the shepherd would remove the pebbles, one by one from the bundle, allowing him to keep track of the numbers in his flock. This bundle was a record of living sheep, a tzror hachaim.
Fortunately, we do not need pebbles any more to keep track of the living. We have phones, and email, and skype for that. And overall, we are probably more connected to those whom we care about today than ever before. But what we all yearn for, what we wish were feasible in our hearts but know in our minds is impossible is to connect to those no longer with us. We wish we could have just one more conversation to say “I am sorry”, or “I Love you”, or “thank you”, or “I forgive you”. Recognizing we cannot have that conversation, we are left holding our memories of them. We clutch them to our hearts in a bundle like the shepherd. For these memories are the pebbles we carry.
Years ago an old Jewish gentleman in his eighties decided to run in the Boston marathon against his doctor’s warnings, and actually came in with a very respectable time. Spectators standing nearby were astounded. How did you do it?, they asked. “How?” he answered, with calm and assurance, and a deep inner faith. “I had companions running with me.” “Who were your companions? We did not see them?” they replied. “You did not see them, because they were in my heart, and in my memory. My zadie, olov hasholom, ran with me. My father, olov hasholom, ran with me. Everyone from the shtetl of my youth in Poland ran with me. We all ran together!”
For that older Jewish runner, the pebbles he carried, the memories of all those who had gone before him, gave him the strength to do something others thought impossible. The memories he carried of his departed family and fellow villagers drove him to do what they never could. He ran. But he ran without being persecuted, or chased. He ran because he wanted to run. He lived a life of freedom and opportunity in the Goldene Medina. And his memories of those who never made it out of the shtetl fueled him. They pushed him to do something remarkable.
Memories can be extraordinarily powerful. They can give us the strength to go on. They can fuel us to do tremendous things.
This is why Judaism gives us a number of opportunities each year to remember, to recite Yizkor, the memorial prayer. Yizkor is a time set aside for us to untie our bundle and admire the pebbles, to remember those whom we have lost. To recall those people who had a tremendous impact on our lives. But of all the Yizkor services throughout the year, many of us sense that today is different. For some reason, yizkor on Yom Kippur stands out. Perhaps our fasting allows us to maintain better focus. Or perhaps the solemnity of the day carries into our experience of Yizkor. But I believe there is something much deeper and more important that occurs during Yizkor on Yom Kippur. I believe our experience of Yizkor is different on Yom Kippur precisely because WE are different.
We have spent the last month and a half in our very own spiritual marathon, evaluating our performance, contemplating our pace, deliberating over our direction. We have done the work of teshuvah, the self-reflection necessary in our ongoing struggle to be the best people we can be. In the midst of our internal work, we take out that small bundle, open it up, gaze upon those pebbles. On this day, we begin to ask the really important questions. Would they be proud of what I have accomplished this year? Am I carrying out the lessons they taught me? Have I carried on the legacy they left behind? Others of us, unfortunately, look at tarnished pebbles and ask different questions: Has our memory of them compelled us to live our lives differently than they lived theirs? Have the lessons we learned by the ways we wished they would have treated us infused themselves into our being? Have we overcome the trauma we suffered because of them? On Yom Kippur, we look at those pebbles, we reflect back on our memories and we wonder whether we have truly bound them up in the bond of our own lives. u’tzror bitzror hachaim et nishmatam
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his beautiful meditation on the Twenty-Third Psalm, The Lord Is My Shepherd, suggests that we bind our loved ones who have passed on in the bond of life in two ways. One way is to continue to live the kind of life they would have wanted us to live. To remember the values they imparted to us and the critical lessons they taught us by commission or omission. The other way we do this is to acknowledge that we have inherited their unlived years. Part of that inheritance is to do the things they never lived to do.
On this day, as we prepare to recite yizkor, we each untie our own bundle and realize that the pebbles we carry with us speak volumes about who we are as individuals. We reflect back on our memories and realize how the souls of our loved ones and their values are inextricably enmeshed for good and for bad with our own. So today, with your permission, I would like to share with you just one pebble from my own bundle. One individual whose legacy I carry with me. One soul whose imprint is stamped on so much of what I do in my work as your rabbi.
That pebble, which I consciously carry with me every day, is the memory of my dear friend, hevruta, and fellow rabbinical student, Rafi Lehman z”l. Rafi was a close friend. He learned Talmud with both Shoshana and me and was months away from being ordained when he died very suddenly. His first yartzheit is tomorrow. Rafi’s memory, his life, and the virtues he possessed as a rabbinic figure saturate my own nascent rabbinate. Rafi loved life and all that our world had to offer. He saw God everywhere he looked and in everyone he met. He had an enthusiasm and love for Jews of all kinds. And he truly sought to appreciate God’s presence in every detail of our world. Above all, Rafi taught both Shoshana and I the joy Torah-learning can bring and the way in which study can pull us closer to God.
As I confront the adventure of the rabbinate each day, I feel a strong sense that I, along with my colleagues, have inherited Rafi’s unlived years. In each new situation here at Beth David, each hospital visit, each sermon, each class, each one-on-one meeting in my office, I know that Rafi’s life, his unlived potential is bound up in my life. When I think of Rafi’s love for all Jews, his hasidische soul, his tireless appreciation for all of God’s blessings, and his intense love for Torah, I ask myself if I am carrying on his legacy. Am I embracing the immense challenge of being an oheiv yisrael, a lover of all Jews, each and every day? Am I perpetually counting my blessings and remaining conscious of the tremendous fortune I have been blessed with by God? Am I continuing to devote myself to Torah learning so that I can share it with you and other Jews searching to enrich their lives?
Rafi is one of the pebbles I carry, one individual whose soul is bound up in the bond of my own life.
On this day of Yom Kippur, as we take one last opportunity to reflect back on our year, we open our bundle and look at the pebbles. We reflect on the lives our loved ones lived, the lessons they taught us, and the legacy they left for us. W ponder whether we are living our own lives according to the values they taught us? Are we honoring their memory in our work, at home, and out in the world? Would they be proud of us? Have we truly bound their souls in the bond of our own lives?
As we prepare for Yizkor, we remember them, either positively or negatively. We remember them because they are the pebbles we carry.
u’tzror bitzror hachaim et nishmatam. May the souls of our departed be bound up in the bond of life.