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November 24, 1989 - Image 44

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-11-24

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that future generations would question
what this meant. If they had all been at
Sinai, there would have been no need for
such a query.
So, as the Israelites prepared to enter
the Land of Canaan, Joshua instructed
the leaders of the Hebrew tribes to take
stones from the River Jordan. These
would be a reminder, a sign, a memory.
When the children of this generation
would ask, "What are these stones you
have?" they would answer that they had
been taken from the Jordan as the Ark
was carried over the river. By this telling,
this remembering, the children, too,
would be bound up in the event. What
was decisive was not the stones, but the
memory transmitted by them.
A liturgical cornerstone of the Jewish
year is the recitation of a prayer whose
very name proclaims Remember, the
Yizkor prayer. This act of remembering is
central to much of the Jewish year and
life cycle, but through this prayer, re-
membering can be most personal and
most powerful.
How did traditional rabbinic sources
understand the purpose of Yizkor and why
did they decide it should be recited .
on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the
Jewish year? There are a variety of ex-
planations. According to the 16th cen-
tury Polish rabbi, Moshe Isserles, since
even the souls of the departed are forgiv-
en on Yom Kippur, it is the responsibility
of those still alive to ask for forgiveness
for them.
Another explanation is anchored in the
idea that the plural of kippur implies that
the day entails a dual atonement: Atone-
ment for the living and atonement for the
And the Levush, a commentary written
by Mordechai ben Abraham Jaffe, the
17th century rabbi of Prague, believes
that the purpose of Yizkor is not to secure
atonement for the dead, but to recall
the merits of previous generations and to
ask that their good deeds work on our be-
These explanations ignore the aspect of
memory most directly related to the act
of repentance. In an essay on repentance,
the Israeli Talmudic scholar, Adin Stein-
saltz, asserts that looking back is impor-
tant because only through that act does
one understand the distance already
covered, the progress already made. Re-
pentance, observes Steinsaltz, does not
bring a sense of serenity, of completion.
But it does stimulate a "reaching out in
further effort." Memory does the same
thing. And that is why it is such an impor-
tant part of Jewish ritual. Steinsaltz
points out that the Jewish approach to
life maintains that someone who has a
feeling of completion and of peace is
someone who has lost their way. Repen-
tance and memory can stimulate that de-
sire to move ahead, to continue growing



and changing. It is here that the third pur-
pose of Yizkor becomes so important.
Memory is not just for the redemption
of the dead or for the redemption of those
who remember them. When we remember
— and, irrespective of who is being
remembered — these memories become a
part of us. They can change us. We be-
come different. We evolve. We grow. And
then those who follow us and remember
us — be they children, nieces, nephews,
students, friends —will also be changed
by their memories who preceded them.
Memory should not be considered only
a link from one generation to another.
Remembering causes change not only in

M emory

should not be
only a link
from one
to another.
It causes
change not
only in us,
but in those
around us.

us, but in those around us. If I remember
something about a relative or friend, it
may cause some small change in me. And
that may elicit a reaction from those
around me. Memory is transmitted be-
tween generations and within genera-
tions. It cuts across all lines. We infuse
these memories with power and meaning.
When we breathe into Ezekiel's dry bones,
we make them live again.
It is important that we not consider
remembering as something only done by
those who have lost a parent or a spouse
or a sibling. In traditional synagogues,
younger generations leave the sanctuary
when Yizkor is recited so the "old folks"
can be alone with their memories. This,
from an educational perspective, is a du-
bious decision. It is precisely these
younger generations who most need
memories and links to the past.

Memory is the root of our tradition. It
is what makes an-individual unique and
a community unique. Biologists tell us
that we inherit our genetic composi-
tion from our parents. It is altered so we
are not the mirror image of those who
conceived us. Yet, the physical stuff of
which we are made is essentially the same
as our ancestors'. Science seems close to
unlocking the mystery of how the body's
characteristics are transmitted, but it
cannot tell us about the soul. For genes
do not carry the soul with them. The
transmission of the soul, of our very be-
ing, may be a mystery. But, surely, one of
the ways it is transmitted is through
memory. Each person has a different per-
ception of the past, a different view of
history. We take that view, incorporate it
into our own experience and it becomes
part of who we are. Memory becomes a
part of our essence.
When the Torah is returned to the ark
during a service, the congregation pro-
claims, "Hadesh yamaynu k'kedem: Re-
new our days so they will be like the days
of yore." The literal translation of that
verse may be a request to be returned to
the past, but it also has a more profound
meaning. Renew our days, infuse what we
are with the best of "Yemai kedem," of
the days of yore. Make us new by helping
us remember the past and fusing it with
the present.
In Jewish ritual, memory is not an ex-
ercise in nostalgia. It is a way of changing
our very selves, of changing those around
us and those who will follow us. It makes
us part of the chain of tradition. We be-
come as new —if we remember those who
came before us, if we infuse our memories
of them into our lives. And then they are
inscribed in the Sefer Ha'hayir:n —not in
the Book of Life, but in the Book of the
Living. They become part of an Etz
Chaim — not just a Tree of Life, but a
Living Tree that is replenished by the
past and that nurtures the future.

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