The Wisdom of Yizkor

Headshot of Rabbi Edward Feinstein
5772
Headshot of Rabbi Edward Feinstein
Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He has served on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University since 1990 and is an instructor for the Wexner Heritage Program, lecturing widely across the United States.

In 1982, Rabbi Feinstein became the founding director of the Solomon Schechter Academy of Dallas, Texas, building the school’s enrollment from 40 to over 500 in eight years, and winning national recognition as center of educational excellence. In 1990, he assumed the position of executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the largest Jewish camp and conference center in the western United States. He came to Valley Beth Shalom in 1993 at the invitation of the renowned Rabbi Harold Schulweis, whom he succeeded as the congregation’s senior rabbi in 2005.

Rabbi Feinstein is a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a member of the school board of Milken Community High School and an active member of AIPAC. A survivor of two bouts of colon cancer, he speaks frequently to cancer support groups all over Southern California.

posted on March 25, 2012
Haftarah Reading
Maftir Reading

A fable: There was a king who had the most magnificent collection of jewels. This collection was his greatest joy. One night, he dreamed of a ring with special power: When a person was sad, the ring could make him happy; when he was giddy, it sobered him; and when he was joyful, it intensified and heightened his joy. The king awoke convinced that somewhere in the world there was such a ring. He summoned his ministers, described the dream and offered a fabulous reward for the one who found it

Each of the ministers went out to search and each returned empty-handed, except for one, whose love for his king pushed him onward. For years, he scoured the world, searching to no avail. Finally, he returned home. But before he would confess failure to his king, the minister stopped at a shop near the palace. He described to the jeweler all his trials. The old jeweler simply smiled. "I have the ring." Refusing all payment, he handed an old box to the astonished minister. "Your king needs this ring. Take it as my gift."

The minister rushed to the palace. He entered the king's chamber, approached the throne, and presented his treasure. Opening the box, the king found a plain, unadorned, metal ring with three Hebrew words engraved upon it:

GAM ZEH YA-AVOR
THIS TOO WILL PASS.

The king soon realized the magical power of the ring. When he was sad, the ring reminded him: THIS TOO WILL PASS, and he was consoled. When he was senseless, he looked upon the ring, THIS TOO WILL PASS, and returned to himself. And when he experienced true joy, the ring reminded him: THIS TOO WILL PASS, and he learned to hold and cherish precious moments. All his many jewels paled in the face of the plain metal ring which never left his hand.

The story is true. The ring and its magic really exist. It is the greatest magic of all: Learning to live with the passage of time. This is the wisdom of the magic ring. This is the wisdom of Yizkor. We learn that those who fight time are destined to lose. No one lives forever. We learn that those who ignore time, or neglect time, or kill time, lose the poignancy, the intensity, the gifts of life. They let life slip away. Four times a year, we come to Yizkor to learn to live with time.

It is said, "Time heals all wound." This is true...but only for the minor wounds. The rude waiter, the traffic jam, the broken appliance are forgotten with the passage of time. The irritations and aggravations of life fade with time. But the real pain -- the painful loss of those we love, the loneliness after they are gone -- never goes away. Over time, the sweetness of memory comes to leaven the bitterness of loss. The pain, the loneliness is still there. But it mellows as it is displaced by our profound gratitude for their lives, for the precious moments we shared. THIS TOO WILL PASS.

When we are lighthearted -- giddy, and tipsy...when life becomes a constant search for distraction, for amusement, for entertainment...we remember, THIS TOO SHALL PASS. No one has an endless supply of tomorrows to accomplish the important tasks of life. What's important in life? What's real in life? And if not now, when?

And when we are truly happy...As we sit at a Seder table with children and grandchildren, with friends of a lifetime...we also remember THIS TOO SHALL PASS. Children grow older and move away. Loved ones pass on. We remember that these moments of joy are fleeting. They come and go so quickly. We must pay attention; hold onto these moments and cherish them. The bitterness of mortality teaches us mindfulness for the moments that matter.

In the movie Avalon, the filmmaker Barry Levinson, pictures his family at the Thanksgiving (or the Pesach Seder) table, sitting together, sharing life’s joys and struggles. Then one year, a slight -- the turkey was cut before someone arrived -- and that was the last Thanksgiving together: From then on, only bitter acrimony, "You cut the turkey!" Never again would the family sit together; never again, until death brought them to graveside to learn the bitter lesson.

Is there a family among us without such bitterness? We are angry. We hold grudges. We remember insults. And we never forgive. We never let go, until one day someone dies. And then, suddenly, we remember the ring’s wisdom, but tragically, because at graveside it is too late. At graveside we can only cry for all the years wasted, all the love squandered, all the precious moments neglected. Do we think we have each other forever? Have we learned nothing from Yizkor?

There is a puzzling ceremony in the Passover Seder. Just before we eat the meal, comes Korech -- the "Hillel sandwich." Hillel, the first century sage, combined all the sacred foods of the Seder in one bite -- the Passover sacrifice, the matza, the marror, the charoset. In Korech, we taste something special. Eating the biting, bitter marror and the sweet charoset all together, we savor the taste of life -- and the taste of life is bittersweet. Bittersweet. The charoset mellows the sting of the marror and makes it digestible. The marror brings out the sweetness of the charoset. Bittersweet is life lived in full awareness of the passage of time.

Those whose lives have never been touched by death don't understand. They expect life to be all happiness. They are so deeply disappointed when it isn't. They turn cynical and depressive and dwell upon the darkness. But those who have learned how to live in time -- how to wear the king’s magic ring -- learn to savor the bittersweet taste of life, mellowing the choking bitterness of mortality with the passion of precious sweet moments.

Shabbat Shalom!