There’s a very fitting connection between Shmini Atzeret and the service of Yizkor. The term “Shmini Atzeret” literally means, “stopping on the eighth day.” Numbers always have great symbolic significance in Judaism. The number seven, of course, has obvious significance as the symbol of completion—like the completion of the seventh day of creation, and the completion of the week with Shabbat. But what of the number eight? When we consider the symbolic references to the number eight, we are reminded of the brit milah, the circumcision rite that always happens on the eighth day. It’s rather strange, isn’t it? Why indeed have rituals and holidays on the eighth day, when the seventh day has such a biblical connection to significance, completion, and perfection?
Our tradition teaches us to think of the eighth day as the fullness of seven, of completion… plus one more! It is true perfection, because when you reach the natural completion of seven, the eight makes a perfect circle: think of the eight-note musical scale: do re mi fa so la ti do! It’s only when you come full circle, that you can stop (“atzeret,”)turn around and behold the whole fullness of the hakafah—the circle—that we have been journeying through throughout this holiday period. That’s just the idea in a brit milah: the baby has survived the first full critical week of life, so now, on the eighth day, we can take a deep breath and truly celebrate this birth, this new little one entering the covenant of the Jewish people.
So here we are at Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day. Today we stop, we pause and look back with satisfaction and gratitude at the joy we have celebrated on Sukkot. And we are also at Yizkor: the act of looking back always reminds us of our loved ones who are no longer with us. But each service of Yizkor has its own particular character, it’s own palate of emotional experience. If, on Yom Kippur, we said Yizkor in our humility and awe from the intensity of the Yamim Noraim…today, Yizkor is recited as a simpler, sweeter reflection.
When Sarah Imenu, the great matriarch of the Jewish people, died, the Torah refers to her death rather strangely: it says “vayihiyu chayey Sarah meah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim, shnei chayey Sarah,” which literally translates as “Sarah’s lifetime was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.” Strange wording. The Torah could have just said, “Sarah lived to be 127 years old,” but instead, it lengthed out the numbering of her years. And our sages explain that it’s worded this way because the Torah wants us to do a little “Atzeret,” to pause and consider the fullness of her years while she was live. Even before the Torah tells us that she died, it wants us to think about how she lived! …About how each and every year was well lived, beautifully and courageously lived.
I once read a story about a woman who couldn’t stop grieving over the loss of her son, who died in a mountain-climbing accident. For twenty years, this woman’s life was utterly devastated. What I read was the record of the counselor who worked with this woman: the counselor explained that this woman was stuck in an eternal mental loop that she was trapped in. Every day of her life, for twenty whole years, over and over, she watched in her imagination that image of her child slipping and falling off that cliff to his death. No! No! No! would be her silent scream in her head at this image. And then there was all her anger at him for not taking better precautions, her guilt at not doing something to protect him. Finally, the counselor asked that woman a powerful question: how many times did your son fall to his death? Once, of course. And how many times have you mentally been falling to death together with him? Hundreds of tens of thousands of times, more than anyone could count, was her answer. And with this answer, suddenly she realized that she could do her own atzeret, she could step out of that hakafah, that loop that went around over and over in her mind, and she realized that once that young man’s death happened, it was over. There was no more suffering for him, just for her because she was forcing herself to experience that death eternally. But all of a sudden, for the first time, she was able to grasp a much wider Hakafah, the much wider cycle of a beautiful life that had been gifted to her in the person of her son. Instead of just replaying his death, she had the spaciousness now to really look back at the fullness of her son’s life: this wonderful, funny, brilliant, creative, adventuresome young man whose time had come. Yes, it was so much shorter a life than anyone should live, but it was his time. And, for the first time in her life, his mother came to a place of peace, gratitude and even joy, because of the fullness of years she did share with her wonderful son.
This is the meaning of Yizkor on this day of Shmini Atzeret: that death is not a gaping emptiness that swallows up life and love. No, death is a Shmini Atzeret, it is the fullness of a completed circle. It doesn’t matter how many or how few years a life was lived in this world. Each life is perfectly whole and complete—whether we die of natural causes or of tragic circumstances—when our life comes to an end, the Hakafah, the circle is full and whole. No! No! No! we may shout. He or she was too young. He or she didn’t get to complete this or that. I didn’t get to tell them I loved them one more time. All of that, of course is true, and we grieve these losses. But even with all of that, their time is their time. And so this moment of Yizkor is so important for us to acknowledge this side of the Truth: that despite death’s experience of separation, we can see our loved one’s lives as a perfectly completed circle. We can look back and find the peace within ourselves. At this service of Yizkor, we can remember our loved ones, and find the joy and fullness beyond all experiences of emptiness and loss…
All throughout our prayers, we affirm over and over that God never forgets the lives of each and every one of us: ‘umekayem emunato lisheinei afar,’ that God keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust, with our loved ones who have passed on. In our prayers, we say that God remembers the Chasdei Avot, the loving acts of our forefathers, and in fidelity to them and their love, God will send redemption to us and to our children someday in this world. God remembers, and we remember. Our tradition calls to us to remember, again and again, that when our loved ones die, don’t focus on their death, always remember shnei chayeyhem, the years of the fullness of t heir lives. Because in our remembering them, this is how they never die.
On Yom Kippur, I did a thought experiment, where I had us picture ourselves. Now we will do another thought experiment, but this time, think someone you love who has passed on. Close your eyes, and see if you can really call to mind a vivid image of them together with you right now. Go ahead: look at their wonderful faces. Look at their smile. Look into their eyes. See how much they love you. See if you can reach out in your mind’s eye and touch their skin and feel the warmth, the life of them. Just take this moment and be in their loving presence. Isn’t it amazing how much the fullness of their life is truly there for you? And don’t discount this as just a fabrication of mind, of imagination. This isn’t a random thought that you’re having. When we see our loved ones in our mind in this way, this is coming from a very real place in our neshamah, in our soul, that has been touched and shaped, forever affected by the fullness of our their lives. That image that you just conjured up isn’t random imagination: it’s an image that flows from a place of real love within you. So in an ultimate sense, that image—which is a vivid and living memory within you—is as Real and True as our loved one’s physical presence while they were still alive! This idea might sound outlandish, but when you search your own deepest Truth, this is undeniable…
When you think about anyone whom you love—living or dead—on a very deep level, you know that they’re always with you, because you have let them into your heart. It doesn’t matter where you are: whether you’re in the living room downstairs and they’re in the bedroom upstairs—really you’re not ultimately separate. Even if you’re in one continent and they’re on another, you can really feel them—sometimes even physically—you can sense their loving presence. Their heart is with you and your heart is with them. This kind of ‘knowing’ is very subtle yet powerful, and very very deep when you love another human being. This isn’t just an act of imagination: this is real stuff. It’s the Ultimate Reality. It turns out that time and space are not quite as real as Love itself. And when it’s all said and done, death itself is not quite as real as Love itself either!
In his old age, the Gerer Rebbe told this story: “When I was still a student, Rabbi Shlomo Leib came up to me in the Beit Midrash and said: ‘Young man, you are known as a gifted Jew from Poland, so tell me why our sages commented on the verse in the scripture: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all they soul,” with the words: “Even if He takes our soul [you should still love God];” but [our sages]failed to comment “Even if he takes your heart,” [meaning: why did the sages NOT command us to love God EVEN if God takes our heart away?!]
I did not know what to say, [at the time, said the Gerer rebbe]… But …The older I get, the larger his question looms before me. If God so desires, let God take our life, but God must leave us that with which we love Him—God must leave us our heart.”
And indeed, this is the Ultimately reality that we discover at Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret: God may take the lives of our loved ones, but nowhere in God’s universe is it even possible to take away their heart. You see, their heart cannot die, because it is none other than YOUR heart! This is the great way that all love cheats and trumps death. In life, when we love another, we are present in their hearts. So when we die, our hearts live on—not metaphorically, but Truly, literally as their hearts.
Yizkor uses the language of ‘memory’ and ‘rememberance,’ but in matters of love and life and death, there is no time, there is no space. Even though we say we ‘remember’ our loved ones at Yizkor, in Truth we are more correctly making ourselves Mindful of their loving Presence that is with us always, in all moments of our lives. The fullness of their lives IS the fullness of our life. This is the essence of their love for us, which doesn’t die.So this year, let us take this moment of Shmini Atzeret, and pause and look lovingly at the fullness of the lives whose love has brought us to this joyful time. Let us come to realize that God keeps faith with their lives through our keeping faith with them through living our own lives. Let us feel their care and nurturing and concern supporting our every lifebreath. And may the wholeness and completion of their lives remind us to cherish the fullness and completeness of our own life’s blessing here and now, while we have it. May their lives be source of blessing to us and to our children from generation to generation.