For many of us, beyond the haunting words of Kol Nidre and possibly the reading of the story of Jonah, the melodies and messages of Yizkor today, make this day most meaningful. Four times a year we gather to remember those who have died. They are our family, friends and co-workers, people of unique importance to us. Their lives were blessings. Some lived each day nobly and others came to end way too soon. So here we sit, mourners amongst us. Each with our own losses and here for our own reasons.
So as we are here, I want us to focus on light … the light of these candles burning in front … the power of these lights.
What do you say when you light a Yizkor candle? Judaism is a tradition of uttered words. We are the people of the book. When we learn we are supposed to recite the text out loud. We pray. When we have an aliyah we are taught to mouth the words along with the Torah reader. We joke: Two Jews, Three Opinions. We are a people who like to talk.
What do you say when you light the Yizkor candle?
I always felt that the lighting of a candle for Yizkor should be followed by Kaddish. Light, the fire and warmth of the Yizkor candle should fill our hearts with the warmth of the memories of those we honor. What better words that a praise to God for allowing us to be a part of the life we now honor.
Proverbs teaches a different message: Ner Elohim Nishmat Adam – The candle of God is the human soul. As a flame casts pure light, moving, fighting against the gloomy night, so is the human soul freed from its physical boundaries, animated, pure, free, a spark against the gloom. The candle of God is the human soul.
What I do know is that the lighting of the yizkor or yahrtzeit candle is a late addition to Judaism, stemming perhaps from an innate human need to do something symbolic in memory of loved ones, to set the room aglow with their light. The tradition has developed that on the eve of yahrtzeiten and on the eve of holidays during which we recite Yizkor we light a 24 hour candle. Many of you lit a Yizkor candle last night. And now we have seven arrayed before us today.
What did you say when the flame caught?
Fire plays an important ritual role in many religions, Judaism included. Fire bookends Shabbat with candle lighting before and Havdalah after. Candles bring in all major holidays and light up our homes on H̱anukkah. Biblically, the sacrificial altar demanded fire and fire lit the menorah in the wilderness and in the holy Temples. Until the harnessing of electricity, fire kept the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, burning bright in our synagogues.
Observing fire and feeling its radiant heat is also a human pleasure. We sit around the campfire telling stories. In our living rooms we relax in the luminosity of the fireplace.
Fire is present throughout the Torah at seminal moments of communication with the Divine.1 When Abraham solidifies the covenant with God known as brit bein habetarim – the covenant between the pieces, when God promises Abraham the Land of Israel, God is represented as a לפיד אש, a flaming torch. God first appears to Moses with fire at the burning bush. In the wilderness, God descends upon Mt. Sinai in fire. Finally, it is as an עמוד אש, a pillar of fire, that God escorts the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years.
Fire is present when our ancestors communed with the Divine. A blazing fire connects us with God. As our loved ones, now gone, were created in the image of God, perhaps it follows that a small light, a tiny flickering flame, can connect us with those loved and now departed.
But fire can also be destructive. When we allow our grief to drag us into dark places, when we are inflamed by memories, when we turn our thoughts of love and loss into darkness, our flames lose their power.
We must use these moments to collect ourselves, to find the sparks of life and love and light that warm our souls. Yizkor is a beautiful time and when we gather together, we can fan that flame into an illuminating presence that can carry us all our days.
What do we say when we light the yizkor candle?’ it turns out there is no set formula. The custom is too new for something to have developed that has received any kind of universal acceptance.
Here is my suggestion:
Dear God, as I light this candle in memory of my loved one, may this be a light of connection, bringing my loved one’s presence closer to me. May it be a light that enables the memory of my loved one to shine bright in my home and in my life.
Like the fire of the covenant that led to the building of a nation, like the fire of a burning bush that led to their freedom, like the fire of Sinai that led to their acceptance of Torah, like the fire of God in the wilderness that led them to the Holy Land, let too this fire be one that leads to action—whether as light for pleasure and learning on this holy day or as a bright source of inspiration—guiding me forever on life’s paths, inspiring me to live up to my loved one’s highest ideals.
May the memory of my loved one forever be for a blessing.
Yizkor Elohim …
May God remember the lights of our lives.