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Yizkor for the Living
By Stewart M. Gisser
"The death of those we now remember left gaping holes in our lives. But we are grateful for the gift of their lives."
When I was growing up, my parents and other congregants shooed their children out of the temple when Yizkor was about to begin. There is a custom that if your parents are alive, you should not remain during the service. The belief seemed to be that if you remained while your parents were alive, this would somehow result in their death in the coming year, and then you would have to stay for Yizkor.
My Rabbi then, and all Rabbis I've heard since, made heartfelt entreaties prior to the service for all to stay. There were Jewish martyrs who died leaving no one to say Yizkor for them. The Rabbis would continue with tales of Holocaust victims, congregants who had passed, and other relatives who must be remembered. Those assembled would sit quietly and solemnly during this appeal. Then, as soon as the Rabbi would say, "...and now please rise," the mass exodus would begin. My current Rabbi gives the same speech, and then his children leave - so it would appear that this custom is pretty well ingrained in the Jewish psyche.
I had been banished from the service for thirty-two years, until my father died in 1986. The time had come when I had to stay.
I have remembered my father every day for the past fifteen years. I did not think I needed a special twenty minutes set aside four times per year to do so. But for some reason this year, the words of the prayers took on a different meaning..
The prayer in memory of a father reads, "In loving testimony to his life, I [will] help perpetuate ideals important to him. May I prove myself worthy of the gift of life, and the many other gifts with which he blessed me."
My father was a gentle, loving, kind, man. He was active in the community, and worked hard to support his family. As I said the words, I thought, "Dad, how am I doing? Am I making myself worthy? Do I need to change? Am I like you?" And I thought, why am I asking you now? Why couldn't I ask when you could answer? Why couldn't I take those twenty minutes four times a year to tell you that I'm proud of you? That I want to perpetuate ideals important to you, because I'm proud of you. Because I honor you.
My mother, thank G-d, is alive and well. She wasn't with me at the service. She was visiting my sister in Texas. She is one of those "young" seniors whose age no one can believe. She swims, she exercises, she travels. She's happy. And I notice lately, she's getting tired more easily. During Yizkor, I remembered.
I thought, have I told her that I will prove myself worthy of the gifts with which she blessed me? That I honor her, and that she is important in my life. That she contributed to who I am and what I've become? I don't want to wait for Yizkor.
Perhaps there should be another service, immediately after. A short service. Everyone who left comes back to sit with their parents, to say prayers of thanksgiving. They can be thankful that they didn't have to stay for the memorial prayers, and can remember those still living who enrich their lives.
from the February Purim 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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