The hour of the day is late, but the seats in my congregation on Yom Kippur are full. It is time for Yizkor, and despite the exhaustion and hunger draining us all, everyone is all here. Many have been waiting all day – some, all year – just for this moment.
When I was a newly ordained rabbi, I had a hard time understanding Yizkor. I had not experienced death or loss as an adult, thank God, and the power of Yizkor was a mystery to me. I tried putting on the airs of a knowing wise rabbi, tried to put on my best well-modulated rabbinic voice as I conducted the service, but, honestly, Yizkor was an awkward hour for me. Today, I can’t say I have any great chochmah about the mysteries of death and mourning much more now, but 15 years later, I do know some of my own losses. I have sat with many more grieving people, held their loss with them, and shared their pain. And as I grow older myself, I see the arc of my own life and, more and more, can project how, one day, it will reach its conclusion. Like the rest of Yom Kippur, Yizkor is our ritual to help us confront our true doubts and fears about life. As much as ever, we need our Machzor to be an effective tool to help us shape a meaningful Yizkor.
The poetry and readings of Yizkor in the old Gates of Repentance have taught me a great deal. Their words echo in my mind throughout the year: “Scarcely ushered into life, we begin our journey to the grave…” “If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the condition that birth should also cease…” “In the rising of the sun and in its going down…” Gates of Repentance did set the stage for my generation of rabbis by teaching us what Yizkor could mean, how it could affect our lives.
And yet, updates are needed for the new machzor. The Yizkor of Gates of Repentance (GoR) is crammed too full with words, at least for me. It feels at times like a dry desert of words, when we need a spiritual pool to immerse in. It still dwells too much on the martyrdom of the Holocaust, especially at its climactic moments. The Psalms traditionally found in Yizkor are treated more like obligations than opportunities. But music is critically important to the power of Yizkor. The occasions for music in the GoR are almost all from the Classical, composed set, and very formal. Elegant though they are, I believe today’s congregations appreciate more contemporary music, or music that is paired-down, even at Yizkor, and it would be helpful to have texts that facilitate this kind of music. I fell in love with the Carlebach “HaNeshamah Lach” in GoR (page 485), and I thirst for more musical opportunities like this in the new Mishkan HaNefesh (the new machzor). We might even ask: Can the pages of a machzor encourage the use of niggunim?
Another note: The 23rd Psalm presents its own challenges, because the King James language is so well-known and beloved, but gendered, and the more modern gender-neutral versions are so clumsy (including, in my opinion, the recent attempts by the CCAR). Leading a recent shiva minyan from Mishkan T’filah for a House of Mourning, I encountered quizzical looks and puzzled faces when we reached the new translation of the 23rd Psalm; the spell of the moment was broken by its awkwardness. (“Where did ‘the valley of the Shadow of Death’ go?” one person wondered, let down by the new language.)
But the best words I speak on Yom Kippur are at Yizkor when I am simply silent, and just sit down. A few years ago, I found instructions for a guided meditation at Yizkor that invites the congregation to re-experience their lost ones again, asking them to hear their voices, feel their touch, imagine the words they would share were they to encounter them once again. We need the white space on the page to offer this experience at Yizkor. More important than the words of prayer, the Machzor can facilitate our true experience of prayer.
Grief is very often accompanied by intense loneliness. Sometimes on Yizkor I think the members of our congregations experience it in isolation, even in a crowded Sanctuary. Our Conservative colleague Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that “the primary message of the twenty-third Psalm is not that bad things will not happen to us. It is that we will never have to face those bad things alone, ‘for Thou art with me.’” Although each person’s loss is personal and unique, often beyond expression, if the new Machzor could somehow build bridges among us all during Yizkor, and if it could help us feel that indeed we are not all alone, we would all be stronger.
Rabbi Andy Vogel is the rabbi at Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA, a 300-family congregation. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in New York in 1998, and is a member of the Machzor poetry committee.
Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor. For more information about participating in piloting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.