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October 10, 2019

Yizkor Sermon (Yom Kippur 5780/2019)

Rabbi Lori Koffman

The Dentist. The Social Worker. The Golf Pro. The Second Cousin Once Removed. Her mother.

These are just a few of the elegies author Miriam Winik’s provides us in her exquisite ‘Big Book of the Dead.’ Her book is a touching series of remembrances of those whose lives—and deaths— have touched hers.

“Our lives are so full of dead people that any sane way of living involves constant remembrance,” Winik says.  “My life has been shaped as much by people who are no longer living,” she continues, “as by people who are.” Writing her book, she says, gave her the “chance to hang out with my friends.”

Yizkor is our chance to ‘hang out’ with our friends, and with our family.

Yizkor. The very word means to remember.

Yizkor is our chance to give time and space to the memories of those no longer living, to honor the stories of those who have shaped our lives, those who have imprinted themselves upon us, like strands of DNA.

Whose life, whose story are you here to remember today?

What comes to mind first as you think of them? Maybe it is their hair, their hands, their smell.

Maybe it is the way they laughed, told bad jokes, were the life of the party?

Maybe it was the kindness they displayed to others, the way they made the perfect martini, or their ferocious love for you.

Last week one of my rabbinical school colleagues, Rabbi Erez Sherman, shared the story of his older brother, Eyal, on the second yartzheit of his death. Eyal died during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—during the very time we implore God to seal us in the Book of Life. Eyal died on Erez’s birthday.

Eyal was 36 when he died, and he had been a quadriplegic for 32 or his 36 years having suffered a stroke from a brain tumor at the age of 4. He was intellectually totally intact, and he had graduated from Syracuse University with a BA in Fine Arts.

Here is some of what Rabbi Sherman shared about his brother:

“For more than two decades, I had the honor of sharing Eyal’s life story with the world. I spoke to my classmates, my congregants, youth groups, colleges and faith-based organizations. Yet, in loss, I had shifted my focus. I now shared Eyal’s story out of memory, out of fear the world would forget his life, that his accomplishments would go unnoticed. Each day, I have promulgated his life: the beautiful art he created with his mouth stick, family pictures posted on social media and poems he painstakingly wrote on the computer with his assistive technological chin switch. There have been many tears, and there have been many smiles as children learned Eyal’s story and told me their own challenges they have overcome, as adults seek inspiration from our family, our community, our story…

This week, I will light a yahrzeit candle to continue to celebrate all Eyal brought to me, our siblings, our parents and so many who never met him but know what he contributed to God’s Earth. I turned 37, but Eyal will always be my older brother, guiding me to do right, do good and to keep living a notable life.”

The stories of our loved ones matter. They matter greatly. They matter urgently. They are how we keep them alive in our hearts, and in the world.

And so I am going to invite you to do something in a moment that I realize might feel a bit uncomfortable for many of you.

I am going to invite you to think of a person you are here for today, and then to bring that person out of your head, to bring that person out of your heart, and to bring that person into this room by turning to the person next to you and sharing something of their story out loud.

Maybe you want to share something about that person’s life that inspired you.

Maybe you want to share something about them you try to emulate.

Maybe you want to share a favorite memory, or a favorite saying of theirs. My grandmother was ‘famous’ for saying ‘it’s nice to be nice.’

Maybe you want to share something they did that always made you smile.

Why am I asking you to do this?

Because their story matters and needs be told…again and again and again.

I am asking you to do this because some of us might be sitting here feeling terribly sad and lonely, and Yizkor gives us the opportunity to look around and to realize that we not actually alone, that there is something we all share: how it feels to live with a heart that will never be fully healed, to live with a void that will never be totally filled.

I am asking you to do this because one of the sacred things we can do for one another is to listen, to be present for one another, and to gain strength from one another, as Rabbi Buchdahl talked about in her Rosh Hashanah sermon.  “Every time we extend ourselves to another human being, we create an opportunity for someone to feel connected back.” 

The person you turn to that you share your loved one’s story with might be someone you know, like a family member, or it might be someone you don’t know. Just please make sure that everyone who wants to be, is included. I suggest you start by deciding who will share first, and each share for just a minute or two.

Now just one more thing: when the person next to you shares with you, I invite you to do what we call ‘holy listening.’ That means your job is just to listen. Not to ask questions. Not to make suggestions. Not to try to fix or respond. Just to present for the person next to you and to be a witness to the life they are bringing into the room with them. And at the end of that person’s sharing, you might want to respond by saying something like ‘thank you for sharing that with me’ or ‘May their memory be a blessing,’ or ‘I really have a sense of them now, thank you.’

So please go ahead and start, and in a few minutes I will suggest when it might be time to switch if you haven’t already. 

My prayer for us all is that we continue to find ways to keep the stories of our loved ones alive, and that their memories and their stories continue to inspire us to ‘do right, do good and to keep living a notable life.”

G’mar Tov. May we all be ‘sealed’ in the Book of Life for a good year ahead.

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

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