Yizkor: Memorial Prayer for Dead Filled with Life

Yizkor: Memorial Prayer for Dead Filled with Life

The prayers of Yizkor, words spoken for the dead on Yom Kippur and several other holidays during the year, are filled with life, faith – and emotion.
The prayers of Yizkor, words spoken for the dead on Yom Kippur and several other holidays during the year, are filled with life, faith – and emotion.


A deep blue sky and the smell of freshly mowed grass, a wobbly screen door and a plastic plate filled with bits of scrambled egg. If asked to describe my first memories of life, these are the details I would offer, a glimpse of a time that is more illusion now than fact.

The years have spilled away and I reach back occasionally to that distant time, managing to recall the past only in a vague, impressionistic fashion – bits of color and light; the sound of laughter and tears; the rich, sweet smell of my mother’s perfume and pungent stench of my grandfather’s cigars.

Those sights, sounds and smells have mixed with thousands of others over the decades, bumping up against the natural forces and man-made events of the years to fashion my life.

Of course I was part of the mix also, deciding for whatever reason to walk through the door on my left, the one that led to the road, the street and city, the country, world and universe that defines my life.

Each door and choice is different, if only marginally, but the path we choose leads off to what appears to be a distant horizon. That horizon today seems to be just around the bend and the distant place is now my childhood memories, grown dim.

This melancholy reverie is the work of my rabbi’s Yizkor sermon a few years ago. He’s good at opening that place where time stands still, the tender spot – perhaps our soul – where hopes and dreams, memories of the past and the people who once lived there now rest comfortably.

The High Holy Days are all about life and death, and Yizkor, the memorial service of remembrance on Yom Kippur, is for me the most spiritual part of this sacred time. It’s unsettling and emotional and raises all those existential fears that we, as humans, spend an enormous amount of energy pushing aside as we race through life.

The other prayers of the holidays are often chanted with little meaning, offered up in a fashion that provide little connection for me in a world hurtling into the 21st Century. The prayers of Yizkor, meanwhile, words spoken for the dead, are always filled with life and emotion.

My rabbi’s words once again played with all this stuff of life and death, reminding us that all our days are numbered.

The time will come when the sand in the hour glass will ultimately run out, and in those moments when the light grows dim, perhaps our last thoughts will be the children’s verse he used to punctuate his point: Life is but a dream.

Then, the light that is offered up on Yizkor, is the knowledge that a family member will one day fill the tug of their own mortality and, hopefully, the remembrance of sweet memories from their distant past.

And on that day they will stand in a shul, reciting El Male Rachamim, God full of mercy who dwells on high, Grant perfect rest on the wings of Your divine presence in the lofty heights of the holy and pure … for my beloved.

And for an instant, the memory of those departed is so real that immortality becomes more than simple hope. For a moment the dead live once again, in our hearts and souls. On Yizkor I recall my mother and father and they live. My wife recalls her parents – Roz and Joey – and for a moment their love and laughter fills her heart.

One day – but not too soon – my daughter will hopefully remember me. I’m counting on it.

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