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Shavuot II 5782    June 6, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Sameach.

What makes Shavuot and the giving of the Torah important is the fact that it was not given in secret. The Zohar was revealed to Rabbi Moses De Leon in private. Other famous religious texts were revealed to “prophets” who then turned and taught it to those who would follow what had been revealed. But the Torah was given in public. In front of more than two million Israelites who saw Mount Sinai engulfed in flames, who watched Moses ascend the mountain and then all of them heard the voice of God as the commandments were given. It was a time of great awe, but it was also an event that terrified all those who witnessed it. The Torah records that the people told Moses, “You go and talk to God, we are terrified. We will stand back over here, and you can tell us later what God said.”

I tell my students that the entire event was so terrifying that the people did not have the proper words to describe what happened. Whenever we read an account of divine revelation; when Abraham experiences the Brit Betarim, the covenant of the pieces in Genesis; when Moses sees God’s “back” on Mt. Sinai; and Elijah experiences God on Mt. Carmel; there are not sufficient words to describe what is happening. The words fail us as our ancestors tried to describe their experience with the divine. If we cannot even pronounce the name of God, we certainly do not have the words to describe God. We are forced to retreat to metaphor and simile to attempt to describe the experience.

Judaism has always been a religion that depends on community. We gather as a community to pray. We stand together in the face of disaster. We celebrate together the birth of children and weddings. And we come together to help a family that is mourning. For good or for bad, Judaism has us confront life together.

Since we are gathered today for Yizkor, we cannot help but notice that while each of us have our personal loved ones to mourn, we do not mark this day alone. We gather in our synagogue; we gather with our community, and we share this mournful moment with each other. It is true that it is hard to really know the pain and suffering of another person, but together we can help lift each other out of the gloom and we can help each other find our way back into the light.

This is what Yizkor is all about. We all have our own individual pain of loss today, but we also have a shared memory of loss. Loss touches everyone so we share our feelings freely with others who have experienced what we experience. In addition, the Jewish People have a shared experience of suffering for the past two thousand years. We have been persecuted, tortured, and killed for practicing our faith. What ties us together is our common history of abuse.

Dr. Willian Plevan, an adjunct assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary noted in a lesson published about six weeks ago, My mother passed away this past October after a year-long battle with cancer, and the eighth day of Pesah (was) the first Yizkor service I attend to fulfill a sacred responsibility to remember her life. The moment of reciting the Yizkor prayer is a very personal one, but I have been struck these last few months by how much my memory of my mother has now been infused with the memories others have shared with me. When I enter the Yizkor service my personal memories of my mother will now be intermingled with those shared with me by others.”

One of the characteristics of memory is that it gets distorted so often. Even the most vivid memory, over time degrades. We remember things that did not really happen. We recall events imperfectly. We think we know and understand our loved ones but there is always something more that we miss. By sharing Shiva and Yizkor we discover the forgotten stories, the unknown stories, the way our loved ones changed the world as told to us by those whose lives were also shaped by the ones we once loved. Our parents, our siblings, our spouse, or our children had lives that did not revolve around us and when we hear from those who knew our loved ones, we see them in a new light that sometimes shines even brighter than what we knew before.

This is also why we read about the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach and the Revelation on Mt. Sinai today. We will never learn more about God and what God has done for us over the ages when we are sitting alone. When we tell the story of the Exodus around our Seder table and when we study the Torah we celebrate today, we make these stories alive for us today. It is not a history that we study, but we share what it was like to hear the voice of God and to accept the call of the Torah. Together we can affirm our people’s commitment to living a holy life.

In the Passover Haggada, there is a passage where the sages discuss if the third paragraph of the Shema should be recited at night. Why is this an important question? Because this paragraph speaks about wearing a tallit. A tallit is only worn during the day because we are commanded to look at the fringes and remember the Exodus from Egypt. We do not wear a tallit at night because when it is dark, we cannot see the fringes so we cannot remember the Exodus. But the sage Ben Zoma says that even if we cannot see our tzitzit, we still should recall the Exodus at night. Dr. Pleven then adds, In the light of day, most of us can navigate the world with comfort, ease, and security. We may not feel we need the strength and company of others. But in the dark of nighttime, we may feel vulnerable, insecure, or lost. It is precisely in these moments when we seek connection to others who share our struggles. For me, this shared memory came about as I mourned my mother’s loss with others. For the Jewish people, we return to the narrative of the Exodus each year to mingle our shared struggles with each other to pass that shared memory on to the next generation. 

Judaism is not a religion of the individual, but it is a religion that values and affirms the unique experience of each individual. We don’t suffer, struggle, or mourn alone, nor do we experience redemption alone. Instead, we share our stories with each other, and our stories become a part of one another’s. And when we hear each other’s stories, we each contribute to a shared memory that provides spiritual nourishment and hope.”

I encourage someone who has suffered a loss to attend daily minyan. This is not a self-serving request. We do need to get ten Jewish adults through the door. But it is at daily minyan that they will find comfort and understanding. Every person at our minyan, either in person or online, has sat in that chair of suffering and pain. I cannot make the pain of loss go away, I can only promise that as we walk in that valley of shadows, that we do not need to walk alone. Some of us know our way through that valley all too well. At daily minyan, a mourner discovers that there is life after a loss and that until the sun returns, there are hands that will help him or her navigate the darkness.

It is not just the story of the Exodus, the story of the redemption of our people from Egyptian slavery, it is also the story of God’s revelation. It was not enough to bring our people from slavery to freedom; there is a higher freedom, a greater life possible when it is guided by God’s laws. We are not only a people who share a story of redemption, but we share an experience of revelation. On this holiday we mark our experience of hearing the voice of God giving us the laws we will need, the tools we will need, to build a better society, to construct a better world. This is not a task that can be done alone. We all heard the voice of God, so we all understand the collective importance of the words that were spoken on that day, and we all also understand the importance of hearing that voice from Sinai, not just in history, but by hearing the echo of that voice every day we are alive.

Judaism is not a religion that leaves us alone. We rely on each other to get through the difficult moments in life and we rely on each other to help make this world better.

Today we gather for Yizkor. Each of us does have our own sorrow to address today. We have to address the memories of those we love on the second day of this holiday. Shavuot give us this chance to remember the lives that once touched our own, the lives that still echo in everything that we do. But our sadness for those who are now just memories is tempered just a bit by the fact that there are others who were also touched by their lives. We are not alone. There are other souls that contain the echoes of the lives of those we mourn. It is our private memory as well as a shared memory. We each have lost someone we love, but there are others who also mourn that loss. And this is a comfort to us today. Our personal memory is also a shared memory. We remember those we lost, and our community also mourns. We share what we have lost, and we share the redemption that is possible.

As we prepare for Yizkor, we look around and see not just other mourners but often we know who they are mourning, and they know some of those we will remember. In our Yizkor books are the names we have listed, but here there are also names of those whom others have listed, and we too remember them and the way they touched us. Yizkor is not a prayer to say when alone. It is said here, in public; in this communal place our shared memories become personal memories and our personal memories are shared with those around. May God not only grant us consolation for our sorrow, but may we be compassionate with each other as we rise for the Prayers of Yizkor…..

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783