Bringing the Yahrzeit List to Life
For those who are not aware of it, we Jews honor the memories of our loving departed by observing the anniversary of their passing by reciting a special memorial prayer in the context of our worship. We call that anniversary by its Yiddish name, “yahrzeit.” The prayer we offer in memory of our our loved ones is called the “Mourners” Kaddish.”
Last year, the President of my congregation came to me with a suggestion about how to make our services more personal at the point in the service when we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. I believe she had witnessed this at another congregation and found it meaningful. Her suggestion was that before we read the Mourners’ Kaddish, we offer those who have a yahrzeit to observe the opportunity to share some brief reflections on the person or persons they are remembering. So we gave it a try and I have to tell you, I found it to be quite a powerful and moving change in the routine of our worship.
As long as I can remember – as a child and as an adult – while attending Jewish worship services, the recitation of the Yahrzeit List before the reading of the Kaddish was this dry cataloging of names of people, most of whom I did not know. Of course these names were meaningful to those who came to remember them and to those who actually knew them, and that indeed was important. Needless to say, the older I got and the more time I spent in the community, the more names there were on the Yahrzeit List were those of people I actually knew; people of whom I had personal memories; people for whom the act of saying Kaddish was more meaningful for me. Yet still, on any given Shabbat, many of the names, if not most of the name were for me, and I suspect for most of the rest of the worshipers, names of people unknown to us, and therefore impersonal. And on those Shabbatot where all of the names where unknown, the Yahrzeit list and the Kaddish were little more than signals that the service was drawing to a close and that the Oneg would soon begin.
However, this all changed dramatically as soon as we began to invite mourners to share their memories of loved ones with us. First of all, understand that not every mourner wishes to do so. It is not their obligation. It is their option. There are many people who are uncomfortable speaking in public, and there are others who find the public sharing of such memories to be too personally painful. But those who wish to share are invited to do so, and several do. We ask that these remarks be brief and some are less brief than others, but none so far have been overly long.
But far more important than whether or not their remarks are short or long is what they have to say. For it is in what these people say that we discover the power of the moment. These mourners share both memories and feelings. In so doing they transform these names into loving, caring human beings. They share their virtues. They share their faults. They bring a tear. They bring a smile. In the end, everyone in the sanctuary finds themselves, to some degree or another, mourning individuals who they may never have known face-to-face. We feel in our hearts the loss that our mourners feel. We feel our own sense of loss in that we have been introduced to an individual who we probably would have enjoyed knowing, but never had the opportunity to get to know.
In this way, in our services, the Mourners’ Kaddish has become far more than a marker, indicating that the service is nearing its conclusion. Its fundamental purpose – that of keeping alive the warm and loving memories of those now gone – has been reawakened in our hearts and in our lives. We all become mourners. We all come to realize that every single individual – living or dead – is far more than just a name; that every single individual brings into this world their own special brand of beauty. When they pass away, and at least some of that beauty is lost, we are all diminished by their passing, even if we never knew them in life.
This has become a very meaningful congregational tradition for it has taken our worship services to a higher spiritual realm.