Throughout these High Holy Days, we have been exploring the spiritually powerful world of Mussar as we have examined just a few of the Middot – the God desired attitudes or character traits – which have the ability to heal our souls and permit more divine light to shine into our lives, and through us, into the lives of others.
During these brief moments of Yizkor – memorial – when our thoughts and hearts turn to the loved ones we have lost over the years, I would like to introduce yet one last Middah, the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance. For after all, that is what this particular service is all about.
As I stated in earlier sermons, and just this morning, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to the other, with the Middot seeking to help us find the ideal spot along that continuum at which we can establish for ourselves the most effective and uplifting set point for our personal attitudes. When it comes to the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance – that set point is to be found somewhere between the extreme of a purging from our memory of any thoughts of those who are no longer with us, and the extreme of a total and debilitating obsession with our memories of those who have departed this life; between the extreme of moving on with our lives as if those people never existed and the extreme of being so lost in our sense of loss that we find ourselves incapable of moving forward in our lives. As is the case with all such continuums, as explained by Mussar, both extremes are destructive to our character, yet elements of both extremes are necessary for our spiritual survival. The Middah of Zechirah seeks to help us discover the sweet spot along that continuum which combines that best of both perspectives in such a way that our memories of loved ones are neither lost to us nor seeking to drown us in an oceans of sorrow; in such a way that we can hold the memories of those we loved, and continue to love, near and dear to our hearts as they come to serve to brighten our lives rather than darken our days.
In our search for this Middah, we need to confront what might be for many a rather uncomfortable fact; that we fear extinction. The nightmare we never speak about with others is the one in which we not only no longer exist in this world, but it is as if we never existed at all. All the evidence of our having been here is erased. If someone were to mention our names, the common response would be, “Who? Never heard of him. Never heard of her.” That our life would have been the realization of Shakespeare’s words: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
If that is what awaits us at the end of our days, then what is the purpose of the struggle? Why do we grasp so tightly onto life? Why do we invest so much energy into it? Physical energy. Emotional energy. Why do we care? Care about ideals. Care about others. Care about ourselves. If it all comes down to nothingness, non-existence, why not just give up the ghost and end it now?
We all want our lives to mean more than nothing. We all want to leave our mark before we are gone. We all want to make some sort of difference; leave some sort of legacy. We all want to be remembered. Zechirah. And just as we want to be remembered, those who came before us wanted to be remembered as well.
But how can we expect to be remembered unless we remember? Why should we, in good conscience, expect those who follow after us to do more for us then we, ourselves, did for those who came before us? We can’t, and we shouldn’t.
There are those who claim, “Memory is a very personal thing. I keep it in my head and in my heart and that is all I need to do.” But remembrance is more than mere memories locked away in our brains, hidden from the world at large; hidden even from those closest to us. Remembrance isn’t something that is exclusively passive. It needs to be active as well. We need to act upon our memories as well as harbor them. We need to bring them into our lives and not just keep them locked away in our hearts.
One way that we can engage in such active remembrance is, of course, through ritual. That is precisely what we are doing right now by attending this service. But this is only one such ritual, and it is a once-a-year commitment, and we can do it for all our loved ones together at once – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and God forbid, children. We all know that there are other rituals as well which we can be observing, such as lighting Yarhzeit candles and saying Kaddish on the Shabbat nearest the Yahrzeit, attending such services as festival Yizkor services and Kever Avot. Visiting the graves of our loved ones and saying a prayer. Giving tzedakah in their memory on their special days, such as birthdays. Now there are those who believe that by our observing each of these rituals, we enable the souls of our loved ones who have returned to God to experience feelings of joy and love not unlike how they felt when physically alive, we celebrated with them their special times, such as birthdays and anniversaries. It would be kind of like sending them a spiritual greeting card. Maybe that is so. We cannot know for sure. However, what we can know, and what we can experience, is whether or not it impacts their heavenly existence, it can impact our earthly existence. Taking the time and the energy to observe such rituals in their memory can touch our lives in much the same positive and loving way that we experienced in celebrating their days with them when they were with us. There is a tangible spiritual uplift we can feel when we take the time to light a Yahrzeit candle for them, say Kaddish for them, go to visit their graves. Such deeds bring out our memories and draw us closer to them. They have the power to heighten the feeling of their continuing presence in our lives.
While those special days with their special observances are very important, when it comes to our actively engaging in Zechirah, there are other opportunities as well – daily opportunities. At the hands of those who are gone, we received manifold gifts; gifts that far exceed any material inheritance they may have passed on to us. These are the gifts of the spirit. These are the gifts which may not have added to our estate but they have added greatly to our character. The wonder of these gifts is that we can keep them the rest of our lives yet freely share them with others and they would not diminish one iota. Indeed, with every act of sharing, they grow. And they grow all the more wondrously if, when we share them with others, we also share something about the people who gave us those gifts in the first place; introducing to those whose lives we bless, to those who blessed our lives. Introducing them as if they are standing right alongside of us; a chain of tradition, if you will, of blessings. You may have heard of “paying it forward”. Well, we can pay it forward and backward at the same time. In so doing, we can keep both the legacy and the memory of our departed loved ones alive and vital in this world.
Not every one of us is destined to have our names inscribed in the history books and remembered for time immemorial but that does not mean that we are destined to fade into nothingness. Each and every one of us leaves a legacy; a legacy of our choosing. And each and every one of us carries upon our shoulders the responsibility to transmit to others the legacies that have been left to us by those we loved. We are the keepers of each other’s legacies. In so doing, we are the ones who determine whether or not the fate of others is destined for extinction in this world or for an unbroken chain of memory and gift giving stretching far into the unforeseeable future. The power of Zechirah – Remembrance – is in our hands and may we always make the most of it.
 Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth”, act 5, scene 5.