Next Tuesday evening is the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is the culmination of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) and is a fast day. It is a time for communal repentance for sins committed over the past year. My father once told me, “Yom Kippur is the day you say you’re sorry and mean it .” At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, according to tradition, God seals the Books of Life and Death for the coming year.
During the Yom Kippur service, following the Torah and Haftarah readings, is Yizkor (we also recite Yizkor three other times during the year). Yizkor , in Hebrew, means "Remember." Let me add a disclaimer that I am not a rabbi, but Yizkor is not only the first word of the prayer, it also represents its overall theme. In this prayer, we implore God to remember the souls of our relatives and friends that have died. Sages teach us that Yizkor is said on Yom Kippur because of the belief that the dead, as well the living, need atonement on this day.
As a child, Yizkor was the time when the sanctuary seemed the most crowded, yet I was told to stand outside. The message was that if your parents are still alive, you do not stay in the service. So, during the 20 minutes or so of Yizkor, the “fortunate” people whose parents were alive sat outside chatting, while the majority of the congregation who had sustained a loss participated in the service. Sadly, I now attend Yizkor services as both of my parents have passed, and next week will be my mother’s twelfth yahrzeit.
Yom Kippur is not only the time of year to say, “I am sorry (and mean it),” but also the time of year I think about my parents the most. My parents were wonderful people who never had a lot, but taught my sister and me many positive ideals and values. They were not perfect, but they were my parents.
The following story gives a good glimpse into my parents. There was an Op-Ed in The New York Times many years ago titled, “A Parent is Always a Parent,” which told of a successful psychiatrist in his 50’s who took his 80+ year old mother to a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. After the last curtain came down and they were making their way out of the lobby to his car, his mother turned to him and said, “Maybe you should first go to the bathroom.” Although they did not live into their 80’s, I have no doubt that would be them.
Speaking of mothers, just because it is Yom Kippur does not mean we cannot have a little fun. Many years ago on Yom Kippur my rabbi shared the following list called, “Statements from Famous Jewish Mothers.” I thought I would share the list with you …
MONA LISA’S JEWISH MOTHER: “After all that money your father and I spent on braces, that’s the biggest smile you can give us?”
COLUMBUS’ JEWISH MOTHER: “I don’t care what you’ve discovered, you still could have written!”
MICHELANGELO’S JEWISH MOTHER: “Can’t you paint on walls like other children? Do you have any idea how hard it is to get that stuff off the ceiling?”
NAPOLEON’S JEWISH MOTHER: “All right, if you aren’t hiding your report card inside your jacket, take your hand out of there and show me.”
THOMAS EDISON’S JEWISH MOTHER: “Of course I’m proud that you invented the electric light bulb. Now turn it off and get to bed!”
ALBERT EINSTEIN’S JEWISH MOTHER: “But it’s your senior picture! Couldn’t you do something about your hair … styling gel, mousse, something … anything ?’
Many of you will remember Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays With Morrie . He wrote, “I watched my old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS break into tears when he told me of an old friend with whom he had lost touch. Once they had been so close. But a silly argument had split them apart. ‘I found out last year,’ Morrie said, ‘that this friend died of cancer.’ He began to weep openly. ‘I never had the chance to make it up to him. I never had the chance to say I’m sorry. Why did I let a stupid argument separate us for all these years? If there’s anyone you care about that you are fighting with now,’ Morrie told me, ‘Let it go. Say you were wrong – even if you think you are right. Because I promise you, when you get to this point in your life’ … he nodded to his dying body … ‘you won’t care who was right or wrong. You’ll only want to savor every minute you had with them.’”
So true! Yom Kippur and Yizkor are serious times of reflection. Let us enjoy those moments of happiness that we shared and let go of the hurt that may have been there. Let us use these Yizkor moments to forgive them and ask their forgiveness of us. We are, after all, only human.
Before I conclude, let’s play Jeopardy (play the theme song in your head) for a moment. The answer is 7:20 . That’s the answer to the most important question my children would ask me every year at this time. When is Yom Kippur over so we can eat? Forget the clock -- we know it is over when we hear the sound of the shofar and proclaim those immortal words: “ L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim ,” - “next year in Jerusalem.” These words represent the dreams and hopes of our collective people, and thus were chosen to be the ones on our lips as we conclude the holiest day of the year.
G'mar Hatima Tova -- May you be sealed in the Book of Life and have a meaningful fast.