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September 25, 2023

The Dead We Carry (Yom Kippur Yizkor Community Service 5784)

The Dead We Carry 
Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Thau, Yom Kippur Yizkor Community Service 5784

The key idea at the center of the Yizkor, the one imbedded in the service’s very name, is memory.

Yizkor”—the imperative, “remember.”

But how do we characterize this memory?

Is it passive? Does it just happen?

We are often surprised when our beloved deceased come to mind. We might suddenly hear their favorite song or catch a whiff of their preferred perfume. So, we might be forgiven for thinking that we are passive recipients of their spontaneous presence.

But, quite to the contrary, examples in Jewish tradition teach that we actively carry our dead with us on our journeys.

I think of the Israelites, who wouldn’t leave Egypt until they knew they were carrying Joseph’s bones.

The rabbis describe Moses searching and searching for Joseph’s coffin following the devastating plagues, when everyone was poised, finally, to leave Egypt after decades of enslavement.

Moses called out to Joseph’s bones, exclaiming, “The Divine Presence is waiting for you! The Israelites are waiting for you! God’s Clouds of Glory are waiting for you!”[1]

Neither the Israelites, nor even God, could leave Egypt without making sure they were carrying Joseph’s bones.

Only after Joseph’s coffin miraculously raised itself from its resting place—only after the Israelites were sure they were carrying Joseph—could they move forward.

Like the ancient Israelites, we also need to carry our beloved dead as we move forward through this life.

While rummaging through my purse recently, trying to find my wallet, I was surprised to discover that I was still carrying a little rock in a Ziplock bag. I had put this rock in my purse weeks earlier, when I was accompanying someone to a cemetery to visit the graves of her parents and brother after a long absence. I had taken this extra rock just in case we couldn’t easily find one at the cemetery for the mourner to place on each headstone. We didn’t need this particular rock, so I never even took it out of my purse. I forgot I was carrying it.

Until it appeared, unexpectedly.

When I discovered that rock in the bottom of my purse, I was reminded of more than our shared cab ride to the cemetery and the graveside recitation of Psalm 23.

I was also reminded of all the stories I heard about this woman’s family: their immigration to the United States, her father’s love of music, her mother’s love of poetry. I never knew her deceased loved ones in life, but I felt a moment of connection to these strangers in their death. If I could carry these memories through a little rock at the bottom of my purse, how much deeper were the memories the mourner continually carried of her beloved deceased.

This rock reminded me about the mourner’s unceasing love for her relatives—and it reminded me that God is present when we memorialize our dead.

Rock of Israel, Tzur Yisrael, is one of God’s manifold names.

This connection is one of the reasons why Jews place rocks on gravestones.

When we place a rock on a loved one’s headstone, we aren’t only acknowledging that we are present for the loved ones we carry. That rock also shows that God is present.

We carry our loved ones, yes, but so does God.

The sine qua non of Yizkor—of Yom Kippur in its entirety—is that God does hear us, that God does remember all the people we carry.

Most of the time, we don’t have little rocks in our purses or coffins in our caravan.

But most of the time, we don’t need them. Our dead still actively join us. We still actively carry them.

May the loved ones you continue to carry be a blessing.


[1] Tosefta Sota 4:7.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.