Yizkor / Simchat Torah
On Shemini Atzeret, the end of this series of holidays, many communities have the custom of conducting a Yizkor service despite having just recited the Yizkor prayers on Yom Kippur. Yizkor became a regular practice in Ashkenazi communities long ago, likely after the crusades. It is typically not recited by people who still have both their parents, and these people often leave the shul for the duration of Yizkor.
I just read a story about the head of the ADL in the United States, Abraham Foxman. Little Abraham was just a year old in 1941 when the war caught up with his family in Vilna. Fleeing from the Nazis, Abraham’s parents had no other choice but to leave him with a Catholic family until the danger passed. Abraham was baptized and lived for the next four years as a devout Christian. After the war was over his parents, who both miraculously survived, returned to claim their child. After winning a battle for Abraham’s custody they took him away with them. Abraham, however, did not feel very comfortable with the Jewish traditions. He was more accustomed to the Christian practices he had experienced during the previous years. On Simchat Torah his father thought Abraham might have a good experience at shul so he brought the child with him. Unfortunately there were no Torah scrolls to dance with in the shul and the congregation fumbled, at loss for what to do. A Jewish soviet soldier who was present swooped up little Abraham and began to dance while holding the child high. “This is our flag”, he cried. The congregation rallied and the young children were carried as the symbol of their future and the living Torah scrolls of the Jewish world. That year their dancing had special fervor. When little Abraham returned home he remarked, “I like this Jewish Church!” (The soviet soldier was Rabbi Leo Goldman from Detroit, with whom Abraham Foxman made contact a few years ago, shortly before the rabbi passed away, to thank him for giving him the inspiration and meaning in a Jewish life.)
Not everyone finds it easy to relate to the Yizkor services, or any other services for that matter. As children of the deceased, bereft of parents, people can feel lost in an environment which maybe their parents were more comfortable in. It seems that the previous generation had more of a shul connection. Nevertheless, the mere presence of a son or daughter in shul shows a great deal of honor for the values of the parents. As the living Torah scroll of the deceased loved ones, the surviving generation holds the legacy of their parents in their hands and hearts.
There is another well known holocaust story that is told about a group of Jews being herded by Nazi guards. Despite being exhausted and malnourished they were pushed at a very fast pace. Anyone who faltered or stumbled would be shot. An old man was with his grandchild in that line and the child could not keep up. The old man lifted the child onto his shoulders. A fellow prisoner commented that the child would weigh him down and get him shot. “To the contrary,” remarked the old man, “the child is giving me the strength which I otherwise would not be able to muster.”
We may think we are doing something for the past generation by attending Yizkor services, and that is certainly the case. But even more than we are doing for them they are doing for us. If it was only ourselves we might skimp on our involvement in services. Because of our connection with the past generation and the knowledge that it was important to them our participation is boosted. Additional letters are inscribed upon the scroll of our heart.