April 5, 2007
Turn Memory Into Blessing
Holidays bring up feelings and memories about people who have died. They also offer opportunities to address unresolved issues. The four Yizkor services and the themes of their days correspond to different tasks of mourning.
Yizkor provides temporal focal points where the new people we are becoming meet again with those we have lost, allowing us to continue the relationships and keep them growing and healing. Yizkor allows us to assess our individual growth in a world without those we've lost.
Each day provides a unique window on the nature of grief, encouraging us to approach healing from a different perspective and address a different task or season of mourning. Each creates a context for continuing relationships with our dead, helping to make peace as relationships transform from physical to spiritual connections.
Continuing our conversation with those we have lost is essential to healing. These conversations are central to our emotional lives. Yizkor engages memory for healing. The pain of our history becomes less of a burden. Memory becomes a blessing. The conversation is restored.
Each day of Yizkor provides a distinctive frame of mourning issues. At Yom Kippur, we settle accounts with others and with God. We put right our relationships with the people who are gone, asking them for forgiveness.
We focus on unresolved issues, feelings and guilts we may carry. It is also a day to forgive those we mourn. Also called in plural form, Yom HaKippurim, the day of "atonements," it is a day when we atone not only for our own sins but also for those of others. This contextualizes a dynamic connection that remains between the living and the dead.
Shemini Atzeret, Yizkor's day two, ushers in the winter season. It is marked by adding to the liturgy a daily prayer for rain. This prepares us for sadness, bringing us closer to mourning's cold and brittle aspects.
This time of the broken heart is necessary to healing, just as the time when the earth lies fallow -- absorbing moisture -- is necessary to bring forth the buds of spring. Our tears connect to the rain and necessity of winter to prepare us for spring. Thus, we honor the need for change and contemplate what it means to let go of the past.
The third day of Yizkor, Pesach's eighth day, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and calls for a release of bondage to grief. It acknowledges the difficulty of yearning for freedom as we seek a new life, as we celebrate spring and the budding of hope!
Finally, Shavuot, the summer harvest festival, commemorates the giving of the Torah and the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel. These themes encourage reflection on gifts given and what they taught, commemorating these gifts with acts of thanksgiving.
For Pesach, the commemoration of the Exodus and the release from the grip of winter and its tears provide powerful healing metaphors. Mourners have insight into bondage as they are held by the grip of grief. Pesach's Yizkor can move the mourner from concern about the deceased to concern with his or her own healing.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzryiam, means narrow places. Pesach Yizkor might focus on finding the passage from the tight places that remain in the mourning process, restricting peace of mind and enjoyment of life, to the freedom to remember the deceased as a blessing.
Each year, the Passover story is told anew. In re-telling the story, we see how it has changed. Through each year's lens, we monitor how time has moved us from the bondage to the blessing of memory.
Passover begins with the elimination of chametz, which inflates food and causes bread to rise. Chametz also threatens healing, for when we inflate or idealize the dead, we lose their reality. Healing relationships becomes harder.
The four children come to the Passover table with different attitudes that correspond to the seasons of mourning. The Simple Child represents mournings' unbearable yearning. The Angry Child is enraged by bondage to past issues and pains. The Mute Child is simply stunned by loss and unable to articulate feelings. The Wise Child has moved on to healing-wholeness.
With whom do you identify? Has the story changed since last year?
Mourners' bondage may appear as guilt over unresolved issues. They may be bound to live the agenda of the deceased and not their own, like the slaves in Egypt, living in someone else's land. This exercise may help you, as you move toward freedom.
Bondage to the Past
We may be tied to something fulfilling and unable to let go. We may have unresolved issues. How are you in bondage to the past or living in someone else's kingdom?
Pharaoh: How is your loss a tyrant holding you in bondage -- a taskmaster, as you do its bidding and not your own?
The Plagues: What punishments have you endured because of this bondage?
Matzah: What have you failed to give proper time, attention and nurture due to mourning?
The Sea of Reeds: What obstacles impede your freedom?
Manna: What has sustained your journey?
The Golden Calf: What has distracted you from the tasks of healing?
Moses and Miriam: Who are your role models and teachers in this wilderness?
The Promised Land: Describe your hope for the future.
God: Envision a healing power to carry you to freedom and the Promised Land.
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is the author of "Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner's Path" (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001) Brener is also a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.