September 29, 2020
Yizkor: These Are the Lights (Yom Kippur 5781/2020)
We will always remember the ways that this year’s Passover was different. Laptops and iPads instead of place-settings. Powerpoints and PDFs instead of haggadahs.
But during our big Central Synagogue virtual seder, there was one sweet moment that felt familiar to me: When it came time for the blessing over hand-washing, we honored Dr. Janis Schaeffer and her son, Dr. Scott Farber, for their holy work during the first days of the pandemic.
And I immediately thought of my Grandpa.
My Grandpa, Dr. Sydney Ross, was born for moments like this. He was a beloved pediatrician and a renowned specialist in infectious diseases. And he the type of person you wanted to be your doctor. He was kind, gentle, and fundamentally decent. If you called him at dinner time worried about your child, he would tell you to come in at 9am the next morning. And if it happened to snow that night, he would wake up early and walk to the office to make sure he wasn’t late.
But more important than all that good stuff—he was a religious handwasher.
My dad told me that whenever he did not engage in proper hand washing protocol Grandpa would chastise him: “Don’t you believe in the germ theory!?”
I’ve thought about my Grandpa many times during these past six months. When I stand at the kitchen sink, and soap up my hands, I sing “Happy Birthday” to him, twice.
Since that seder back in the spring our world has suffered incomprehensible loss. We mourn 108 loved ones of our Central Synagogue family. Over 200,000 Americans. One million people around the globe.
Every year we bring to Yizkor our private heartache. But this year, we also bring the crushing burden of our collective sorrow.
Yet during these past six months, whenever I’ve come close to despair, I’ve remembered my Grandpa’s optimism. His hope ran deep—it was the kind of hope that only a pediatrician could possess.
The Yizkor prayer that we say on Yom Kippur is of course about memory. Yet the beginning of Yizkor actually points to the future. Yizkor Elohim: God will remember the souls of our loved ones.
With these words, we hope that when we remember, God will remember too. That God will remember the souls of those we love into eternity.
The words of Yizkor transform our memories into hope.
The rabbis who authored Yizkor understood something essential about the stardust of our souls. They understood that our memories are not made of mundane matter like metal or clay. They are made of light.
Take a look at your portable ark, and read the words of Hannah Szenes: “There are stars up above, so far away we only see their light, long, long after the star itself is gone. And so it is with people that we’ve loved—their memories shining ever brightly though their time with us is done. But the stars that light up the darkest night, these are the lights that guide us.”
Those lights give us direction. They give us strength. They give us hope.
There’s a story about the great Jewish mystic the Baal Shem Tov. He too was born for moments like this.
At times of great hopelessness—a plague perhaps—the Baal Shem Tov would go to a secret place in the forest, light a special fire, and say a prayer to God. And hope would return to the world.
When the Baal Shem Tov died, and hopelessness came back his disciple would go to that same place in the forest, light the same special fire, but he would say to God: “I don’t remember the prayer. But I found my way through the forest, and lit the fire. That must be enough.” And hope would return to the world.
And when that disciple died and hopelessness came back, his disciple would go to the same place in the forest, but he would say to God: “I don’t remember the prayer, I don’t remember how to light the fire, but I found my way to this place.
That must be enough.” And hope would return to the world.
And when that disciple died and hopelessness came back, his disciple would hold his head in hands and say to God: “I don’t remember the prayer, I don’t remember how to light the fire, and I don’t remember the place in the forest. But I remember the story. That must be enough.” And hope would return to the world.
The story of the Baal Shem Tov’s sacred fire burns with this radiant truth: our memories are enough. Even in the midst of this terrible pandemic, the luminous memories of our loved ones are enough to get us through this darkest of nights.
I’m blessed with many memories of my Grandpa. But if you ask my mom and dad, they’ll tell you about my Grandpa’s hands. And not just the legendary hand-washing. His hands were as big as pillows. They were so big, that he could hold a newborn baby in just one of them.
Like the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple’s disciple’s disciple, I never saw this miracle. But I carry with me the memory that one day my Grandpa washed his hands, walked into a room, and scooped me up in one hand for the first time. He smiled at me. The light of his blue eyes shined in mine.
5780 was a year filled with impossible darkness. But each of us here today is remembering a light that shined through that darkness.
You have a photo.
You have a handwritten recipe.
You have a gold ring.
You see a sly smile.
You hear a belly laugh.
For me, I’m still held by my Grandpa’s hands.
These are the lights that guide us.
May those lights shine even brighter in the new year.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.
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