Yizkor and Candles
Yom Kippur 5775
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Ten days ago I spoke to you about our community spirit. Rosh Hashana is, after all, a festive day, a happy day of us coming together to celebrate a new year. Tonight, as we enter the more individually introspective Yom Kippur, I want to talk about something more individual.
Let’s talk about… juice glasses. When I was a kid, we had, more or less, two types of juice glasses: the ones we loved and the ones we wouldn’t touch. The ones we loved were Welch’s grape jelly jars. They had cartoon figures on the outside and as soon as we could finish the jelly the glass jar was ready for drinking. The dishwasher slowly faded the colors but we didn’t care. A jelly jar that was a juice glass. That was so cool.
Then there were the other juice glasses that we did not like. These were squat little things that held just a few ounces. They, too, were repurposed but these had held not jelly but wax. Specifically, a candle. More specifically, a yartzeit candle.
Yartzeit is Yiddish for “year’s time.” It is an anniversary. In this case, the anniversary of a death. Jews were never big on birthdays but we have a finely honed ritual for death dates. There are five times one lights a candle. On the yartzeit date itself, and then the four dates we have Yizkor services. Those are today, Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot, the last day of Pesach and the day of Shavuot. The candle is lit on the evening the day before as the Hebrew date begins. That would be tonight. The candle burns for 24 hours so it had to be big enough to hold all that wax and inside a flame proof container, hence the size of a juice glass.
There is no prayer said when lighting a yartzeit candle but it is a nice time for reflection, a moment of remembrance. You light yartzeit candles for siblings, spouse, parents, child although many people light just for parents and spouses and when needed, children. Some people have a candle for each person but many people have one candle to remember multiple people. Either custom is fine.
Afterwards, the container can be thrown out or used for juice glasses. Honestly, it’s just a glass. It held a yartzeit candle, sure, but halachically, it’s just a glass. You could do anything with them and that’s why people used them for drinking glasses. But my brothers and I were having none of that. We knew that something important had taken place over these glasses. It wasn’t just that we were remembering dead people. It wasn’t just that. It was that these yartzeit juice glasses were present for a whole ritual. It got taken out of the special cabinet where a half dozen sat at the ready. It was set up on a plate in the middle of the stove-top as extra fire protection. It was lit with intention and a serious pause. A very serious pause. In my Bubbie’s house, the candle was my great-grandmother and great-grandfather. In my mother’s house it was my Bubbie and Zaide. These juice glasses, handed down –nothing should go to waste- represented the lives of people and more importantly they represented remembering the lives of people. Lighting the yartzeit candle meant that attention had been paid. Lighting the yartzeit candle meant that names were recalled, good times recalled, fondness recalled, love recalled. For twenty-four hours anytime we walked into the kitchen, past the kitchen, through the kitchen we knew that remembrance was taking place. Actually, it was nice. It was nice to know remembrance was taking place. It’s a bit sad but it’s nice.
Often, when I meet to discuss a funeral, families tell me, “We want it to be a celebration of life.” One time at a different synagogue, the family told me they didn’t want the funeral to be sad. I wasn’t sure how to have a funeral not be sad. Then they explained they wanted a “celebration of life.” I hear this idea not infrequently. They want a “celebration of life.”
First of all, what do they think a Jewish funeral is? Do they think we just meditate on the nature of death? Of course, not. We share stories and tell tales and remember our loved ones as they lived. We recall their triumphs and we acknowledge, with gentleness, their shortcomings. We, dare I say, celebrate their life. And that is what yartzeit candles are for as well. They are not there to ruminate on death. They are there to remind us to celebrate the person’s life.
Why has Judaism not developed a culture of celebrating birthdays but has a ritual for anniversaries of death? Because another birthday is another challenge to make something of the next year. A birthday is the understanding that a year of hard work is about to take place. Work, study, relationships, growth, raising children, caring for parents. The next year will be another challenge. No child ever ruminated on the passing of age nine. No! They excitedly talk about being ten! And should that not be the case? The secular notion of a birthday is a celebration looking forward. A parent may celebrate looking back at that crazy day of birth, birthdays ending in zeroes may cause a brief reflection but really, other than that, what does a birthday celebrate? It celebrates passage of time but let’s be clear a birthday isn’t a celebration of life because you’re not yet done with that life.
The yartzeit is the true celebration of life. The yartzeit is the moment to look back. The person’s life is done. How did he do? Where did she succeed? Did they make something of their life? And most often the answer is yes and we celebrate that. The yartzeit may take place on the date of death but its purpose is to gaze at the person’s life. The yartzeit is the place to remember and recall with fondness all that our loved ones did with their lives.
And when we have yizkor on those four dates, yes, of course, it’s sad but what’s wrong with a little sadness? What’s wrong with a little weeping for the people we loved? It’s okay to be melancholy. The point is to take a moment, give yourselves over to the ritual and just take a moment to remember. In a busy world with our busy lives, our heritage, your heritage gives you a pause, a time out, a chance to breathe in, say a prayer and remember. Four times a year, no, five even, we remember and we celebrate life.
There is a kabbalistic idea behind those candles and wannabe juice glasses. The wax represents our bodies. The flame, the best part of a candle, ever reaching upwards, is the soul. The flame always reaches toward heaven, always tries to aim higher. The flame wants nothing more than to go up and up and up but it is tied down here by the wax, the source of its energy. Our bodies are wax, living for just a finite time but they give energy to our souls and they allow our souls to be seen and touched while here on Earth. When the wax is gone, the flame goes out but the energy of that flame lives on forever. The body fades, the body dies but the soul lives on in our hearts, in our actions and in the heavens forever. When we light that candle, we remember that precious soul and we celebrate that life. That is what the candle is for. That is what our yizkor service is for. It’s a lovely moment.
But you don’t come. I don’t know how many light candles at home but our yizkor services are very poorly attended and even yizkor on Yom Kippur is not as full as it should be considering it is a lovely, poignant, quiet reflective moment.
I suspect I know why yizkor is poorly attended over the year. Two reasons, really. There was a tradition that children shouldn’t attend yizkor services even adult children. Some say they wanted to spare the children the sight of parents crying. Some say it would tempt the evil eye to cause the parents to die in the coming year. Whatever reason, children didn’t grow up understanding what yizkor services were and so when it came time for them to go, it wasn’t something they were familiar with.
Another reason is that yizkor is part of the liturgy for the holiday and many people don’t liturgy.
What can I say? I like liturgy. It tells a story. There is a mantra like effect in its repetition but perhaps I’ll try to convince you of that another day. For now, let me meet you where you are.
Over the last year, Cantor Amy and I have experimented with highlighting the poignant aspect of yizkor and diminishing the surrounding tefillot. We’re going to keep doing that to find out the best way to create a reflective moment that succeeds. Come experience what we are putting together and let us know what you think.
The climax of yizkor is mourner’s kaddish. That prayer runs interference for the deceased’s soul in heaven. The root for prayer in Hebrew is פלל. It has the sense of interference. Prayer interferes, as it were, with God. When we say prayers we use them as intercessors, something to reach out to beseech and prod God. There is a classic understanding that upon death, God judges the soul of the deceased and saying the kaddish prayer interferes with the judgment by softening the judgment. Saying kaddish the first year after a death of a parent was crucial because for thousands of years, we’ve understood that power of prayer as literally having an impact upon God and many still believe that but for us in the rational tinged Reform Movement, we may have lost that understanding.
Let me, then, bring in a different type of interference. Perhaps we can reinvigorate a tradition that will interfere with your daily life, something that breaks up the months so that three times, in the fall, the spring, the summer at the end of Sukkot, the end of Pesach, the end of Shavuot, we can interrupt our rhythm and use it as a time to remember those who came before us. We don’t often get that chance. Let’s see if we can do that, together. Let’s remember together. Let’s come together as a community to support each other as we remember. Let’s not let the years roll on without stopping to pause and remember. Let’s mark our calendars and add a flow to our year and light a candle in our kitchens. I know that people can and do remember all the time but there is something different about having special moments set aside where we all share the same experience together.
To help you do that, outside I have candles for you to take home. I hope you’ll join me in remembering our loved ones and adding, perhaps, a new tradition to your home. I know this will be hard for many of you. Embracing an old tradition that is new to you is difficult. It will feel foreign. It will feel inauthentic. To this I say, just give it a chance. You are allowed to add to your repertoire of Jewish living at any age. You are entitled to recapture the custom of your Bubbie and Zaide. You are entitled to add something new to your Jewish home. Rekindle the custom of yartzeit candles and start tonight.
We have 200 candles outside, enough, I think, for a couple per household. Light them tonight and take a moment to remember the best of the people you are remembering as you celebrate their lives.