Thoughts on Yizkor, the memorial service

Death is hard for us humans to get our heads around. How can a person change – in a single instant – from being a unique individual with rich thoughts, emotions, relationships and experiences to being what looks like an inanimate object, an empty mannequin- like copy of someone whom we know existed just an instant ago?

That great mystery – what happened to the real person we knew — puzzles, confuses, engages and inspires humans throughout the world and most likely throughout human history. Where does that “real” person we knew and loved go? Why do we love so intensely and work so hard for our own survival and the survival of our loved ones when we all end up looking like inanimate mannequins (at best) and piles of picked over bones (eventually)? How can we sustain our relationships – our infinitely complex webs of favors given and received?

At the risk of grossly over-simplifying one of the most creatively, brilliantly and gloriously diverse aspects of human cultures: It seems to me that the “paradox” of death tends to be handled in a couple of common ways. Some cultures simply deny the reality or permanence of death – the true body and the real person are posited to continue to live on in some other sphere, or are believed to be temporarily indisposed but will live again in the future. Some cultures understand the dead to hang on in some sort of amorphous existence that allows them to return to earth for specific reasons (such as to avenge their deaths) or to visit communities on particular days such as Obon or Days of the Dead. Some cultures encourage the maintenance of relationships between the living and the dead through offerings and sacrifices believed to encourage the dead to protect or assist the living.

Jewish culture – I believe – takes a rather different tack. Our yizkor service is short – not particularly elaborated either ritually or cosmologically. We do not attribute special powers to the dead: In fact, we read in our liturgy the verse from Psalms: “The dead cannot praise God, only the living can.” We do not have special holidays when the dead return to earth. And even our most communal death ritual – the yizkor service — does not invite the dead to come visit for the day (a type of invitation that does take place in many other cultures).

A core principle of our Jewish culture is separation: A place for everything and everything in its place. God created the world by separating the primal chaos into discrete days and nights, firmaments and waters, and so on. God created people by separating the primal ungendered Adam into male and female. We separate (lkadesh) the Sabbath and we carry out a unique ceremony actually called “separation” (havdalah) to clarify that separation. We embrace one of the most unusual constellations of rituals that I’ve met in any culture –Kilayim: we separate milk from meat and linen from wool and species of plants in the vineyards, and so on. In short –Jewish culture deals with the messy and chaotic nature of existence by creating order – the name of our most beloved archetypical Jewish ritual – the Seder.

Within that cultural landscape, death is especially problematic. Death is messy – disordered — on many levels. Death involves blood and other effluvia escaping the body – going where these things do not belong. Our most intimate death ritual – tahara (washing the body) – involves cleaning up that mess.

We Jews like to bury the corpse as fast as possible – in the holy city of Jerusalem, before the sun goes down on the day of death. This often doesn’t make emotional sense – family members may not have time to process what happened or even to make it to the burial. But it makes cosmological sense. We want to set things straight as soon as we can. As long as that body that still looks a whole lot like the living breathing individual we know – but somehow isn’t that individual anymore  –  the world feels chaotic. As long as the corpse is above ground, the grievers are onenim, not yet true mourners (in the halachic sense). They, like the corpse, are hung up in a limbo state. It’s the burial that clears up the muddied boundary that truly separates the dead from the living, which literally moves the dead out of everyday earthly view. Unlike our Christian neighbors, we don’t even put flowers (a symbol of living and of organic decay) on graves. We put rocks – a material that is really, truly inanimate.

What else do we Jews NOT do or think about the dead? We do not visit the cemetery and leave food for our dead (as is done in many cultures.) We hem and haw about beliefs in an afterlife. We have some theories but none of them are terribly well developed. Our best-known and most common prayer for the dead – the kaddish – does not even mention death or the dead! We are prohibited from asking the dead to intercede on our behalf. Unlike in many other cultures, we do not have a Charon boatman who rows the dead across the River Styx and who can row back as well. We don’t have a Jesus who dies and then reappears. We don’t have a “band of angels watching over me coming for to carry me home.”

Having said that, what are we to do with our very human feelings that our particular beloved dead are not truly separated from us forever? We may not WANT them to be truly separated from us. True separation is just too awful, too outrageously sad, to contemplate. We need them to guide us (as in the case of parents who have died) or we know that they need us to take care of them (in the horrible cases where a child has died.) Sometimes we may have dreams or sudden sensations that the dead are present in some way or another. The bonds of love and of history are too strong.

Throughout Jewish history and cultures – albeit as minor counterpoints to the dominant theme of separating the dead from the living– there have been efforts to sustain relationships with the dead through liturgy or ritual. For example, there are several references in rabbinic literature to the notion that the dead, like the living, need atonement; and that the living can successfully offer prayers of mercy on behalf of the dead. We light candles “for the dead” – surely a symbolic gesture of signaling or feeding (through smoke) the dead. In my own research I have documented the thriving ritual practices at holy tombs in Israel – including Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb). And of course, just this past week we invited the Ushpizin (spiritual visitors) into our earthly sukkot (booths).

We also keep in our cultural treasure box a few figures who can move back and forth between heaven and earth, who didn’t die but ascended and can come back to visit. Best known to most of us is Eliyahu HaNavi – Elijah the Prophet. Last year when my husband Yishai and I were in Israel we visited the tsiyun (marker) of Serach bat Asher, another Biblical figure who is said to transcend realms.

But perhaps the most important border crosser in Jewish culture is invoked in the Yizkor service. The focal prayer of Yizkor, the prayer with the greatest emotional resonance (due, at least in part, to the haunting melody): El male rahamim (God full of mercy) opens with words — “shochen bameromim” (“who dwells on high”). These words place God up high, very high, certainly out of human view and comprehension, outside of the earthly human world. But as so often is the case in our verbally rich Jewish tradition, a correction is offered later on in the prayer. We pray that our dead will find repose tahat canfei HaShekhina (the imminent presence of God, traditionally understood to be female) – under the wings of the Shekhina. The image of resting tahat canfei ha shekhina is old, appearing in midrashic literature. Interestingly, some Yizkor texts use a somewhat different variant:  al kanfei HaShekhinaon the wings of the Shekhina, an image invoked in the Zohar to describe the ascent up to God of Moshe and other important ancestors after their deaths.

The Shekhina – from the same root as the modern Hebrew “neighbor” (shchen or shchena) – has been understood as the presence of God, an aspect of God, an eminence of God, another word for God, a state of being or activity of God, and – at some points in our shared cultural heritage – as a semi-separate divine entity who can move back and forth from the human realm to the realm of God or to the realm of the dead. Within our otherwise order-loving religious culture, the Shekhina is divine but is present on earth; divine but also indwelling in this world; and in case we miss the boundary-crossing nature of the Shekhina – she is God and she is female, in grammar and in imagery.

Rituals and songs and prayers invoking the Shekhina were warmly embraced during the first decade or two of second wave Jewish feminism. Many people, myself included, were profoundly moved – and relieved – to have a way of speaking of and to the divine in language other than the male language of patriarchy – of father, Lord, King. For me, the imminence of the Shekhina resonated and still resonates with my earth-centered world view.

In times of sorrow I long for the comfort of curling up “mitachat canfei haShekhina” (under the wings of the Shekhina) and I pray for the loved ones whom I can no longer see and hear on this earth – my mother who died far too young, my mother-in-law who suffered far too much, her younger brothers killed by the Nazis – to feel the comfort of HER sheltering wings. When I face challenges – coping with my own personal suffering or feeling like I’m hitting my head against a wall working for social justice – I pray to be lifted up and carried ON the wings of the Shekhina.

May we all find rest and vigor under and on the wings of the Shekhina.  “Ve Ani Matzati menucha metachat canfei haShekhina.”