The three reasons given by Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev as to why Shavuot is referred to as Atzeret correspond powerfully to three explanations of that great expression of remembering, the recitation of Yizkor.
There are those who view the past merely as history, as dead. To them, the past has no valuable lessons or implications to impart for the present or future. For them, the past is not merely past, but it is valueless for the here and now. Jews who cling to this sense of the past find no meaning in rituals of mourning. For them, tearing k’riah, sitting shiva, and observing the halachic and historical modes of mourning are archaic. For them, the past is ancient history that has no meaningful or practical expression. Their Jewish past is over and gone, it ceased with the passing of parents or grandparents. It is abstract, it has no practical methods of contemporary expression.
Then there are those Jews who are able to find a more meaningful yet incomplete method of reciting Yizkor, of remembering the past. For them, recalling the past evokes warm and tender feelings and sentiments, but those emotions affect them only to a point. They are willing to “visit” the past, but they will not allow the past to “visit” the present. They refuse to allow the past to affect their present or future. These are Jews who respect the past, study and analyze it, do research and issue studies and journals about the world of our fathers, the shtetl, , the world of yesteryear.
These are Jews who are unable to proclaim Hadran halach. The passing of grandparents and parents is an abrupt end, without anxieties of kasheh alai pertdatchem – without the inducement to continue the legacy of those who taught us.
Then there is the third way, the only genuine and authentic method of reciting Yizkor. This way is to be able to translate and transform memories, emotions, and past love into new realities. Solomon exclaimed, “Why awaken or rouse the love, unless you are willing to create a new vessel to contain it?”
Recalling the past is meaningful only when one is able to transfer the ahavah into a new chefetz. Genuine and credible tears, memories, and emotions are an acknowledgment that the present has only been made possible because of its connection with the past, and that any future must likewise be connected with the present. Mourning and recalling those who preceded us, with their love and dedication, must include an acknowledgment that our present is not only their past but also the future of the next generation.
The past, then, is the key to our future.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.