At my son’s brit milah six months ago, there were few things that I was concerned about. Some insist on having family heirlooms at lifecycle events: Bubbe’s candlesticks, uncle’s tallit from his Bar Mitzvah, etc. I was not worried about that. We were simply concerned with celebrating with community. However, there was one thing I was looking for, one thing I wanted to have at the bris. I remembered as a child, my paternal grandparents using these small green chalices as Kiddush cups. Since my grandmother passed away a number of years ago, we had been unable to find it. We tore three houses apart (my parents’ home and my father’s two brothers’ homes) looking to storage to find these Kiddush cups. They were small, made of green stained glass and pealing gold paint. It aren’t expensive. They aren’t even that pretty. But they were my grandparents.
Our son Noah Abraham, was named for my paternal grandfather, Abraham Nathan. The Jewish custom of naming after a loved one, after a family member, is a meaningful one. The Ashkenazic custom of naming after someone who has passed ensures that we fulfill the hope and promise of tehi nishmato tzerura btzur hachayim, that our loved ones’ souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. We name after our loved ones, we use their ritual objects, including their worn out green stained glass chalices. We tell their jokes, even when they aren’t funny. We use their idioms and cook their recipes. We teach our children the ethics and values that they taught us, to know that they are here, that they are with us.
We say the words of Yizkor – and we remember. We never stop to think why we say them when we say them. It is not like we need a service to help us remember; we think about our loved ones who have passed every day, multiple times a day. But we recite Yizkor on these holidays because these holidays, and really all holidays, are about celebrating with family. Holiday celebrations are about celebrating with community and celebrating with family. So, maybe we say Yizkor on these holidays because it is at holiday times more so than any other time that we think of family, that we remember our loved ones, and that we miss them considerably.
I think Passover in particular teaches us an important message about holding on to family and carrying them with us. For Moses carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. In the middle of the exodus narrative, as the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, we read in Exodus 13:19:
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones away with you.’
By carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, Moses was fulfilling a promise made 400 years prior at the conclusion of the book of Genesis.
Moses was carrying his ancestry with him. He knew that no matter what, he had to hold unto family. Wherever he went and whatever he did, whether it was as a child in Pharaoh’s palace, as a shepherd in Midian, or as a leader of the Israelites taking his people out of Egypt, he knew that it was his family, and his roots that defined him. He carried those roots wherever he went. So too, we carry those roots with us. We carry our loved ones with us, for as long as we live, they too shall live.
The midrash in Mechilta teaches that Moses stood at the front of the Nile and declared, “Joseph, Joseph, the time has come to redeem the oath that you exacted from your brothers.” Immediately, Joseph’s coffin floated to the surface.
The Hebrew word for coffin in this case, and commonly used, is aron, the word we usually reserve for the Aron Kodesh, that which holds our Sifrei Torah, our Torah scrolls, and that which held the Tablets of the Covenant as the Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years. This is a reminder that the memory of our loved ones is as holy as Torah, a reminder that the lessons they have taught us are as important as the lessons of Torah, a reminder that we carry them with us just as we carry the Torah with us, and a reminder that, like Torah, our loved ones are also an Etz Chayim Hee. Even if they aren’t living, they too are a tree of life as long as a cling to our memories of them.
So let us carry our loved ones, let us hold unto them, and ensure that no matter where we are, they come with us. Even as we change, as we grow, as we move, as we go on our own exodus journeys, we are sure to bring them with us. For as long as we live they to shall live, for they are our Torah. That is why we turned three houses upside down looking for used small green stained glass Kiddush cups. That is why we continue to use those chalices in my home weekly at our Shabbos table, and why we will carry them with us wherever we may go. May we carry our loved ones – in our hearts, in our souls, and in our minds – with us, always.
- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky