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Chizuk Amuno Congregation

Yom Kippur – The Power of Memory Today

I am happy to share my sermons with you from the Holidays.  We are also including the links to the streamed video from the sermons as well.  My only request is your understanding that I rarely give the exact version of what is written on the pages in front of me in live time in the sanctuary.  In addition the sermon titled “Our Collective future” was given from an outline.  I have included that outline as well as the video link.  If anyone is interested in any of the individual introductions to the prayers that I gave throughout the holidays please contact me directly.


Gemar Hatimah Tovah

I am haunted by memory.  In fact, some memories are so powerful that they both haunt and inspire me at the same time.  Some are of people and some are of trivial events, and some still are of moments that transformed my life irrevocably.  Sometimes they are simple memories, like the touch of my father’s beard against my face, or the most recent Super bowl.  I find that often the simple ones are the most powerful.   I want to tell you about our gold drinking goblets. Actually, they were more like a translucent glass amber, fitting I realize now, as for me they are the fossilized memories of holidays gone by.  These glasses were no doubt purchased in the mid-seventies by a young Jack and Sandy Gruenberg as they were about to embark on their first Passover together as a family of 4.  With a 3-year-old Hana and baby Josh in tow, my mother went to Woolworth’s and purchased 16 glass goblets so that everyone at the Seder would have a drinking glass.  These goblets have become part of who I am. 

A few years ago when my parents moved out of our childhood home and made the decision to no longer host Passover, they realized that most of their Passover dishes had outlived their “shelf-life.”  But 8 of these amber glasses remained.  Two of them to this day are a part of our Passover collection, and each year, as we switch the kitchen over for the holiday, they appear and amidst teary eyes, I am flooded with memories.  Some are specific to the goblets like the careful pouring of the Kosher for Passover Coca cola so each of the 4 kids would get precisely the same amount.  But most of the memories relate to my childhood in general but specifically the celebration of Passover when the Gruenbergs of my youth were all together.  Perhaps it’s because I think of people who are no longer here, or because of the regret I feel for not cherishing those moments at the time, but whenever I see those glasses the bittersweet joy of nostalgia overtakes me.  That is the power of memory.  It transports us from one place to another almost instantly. And it doesn’t even take that much to do it.  Just a whiff of a smell, a faint echo, the touch of a goblet in your hand can do it.

The purpose of the recitation of Yizkor is to remember.  At one of the most important times of the year, we pause to bring to mind those special people in our lives who are no longer with us.  It is an exercise of utmost importance.  Whether it is the solemnity of Yom Kippur, or the joy of the festivals, taking out a few minutes to remember our departed loved ones seems like the bare minimum that we can do to recognize those who influenced, who helped us become the people we are today. Yet I have to believe there is something more, something deeper in the recitation of these prayers today. IT just feels different. We are not connecting to glasses, or holiday celebrations and customs, the way we might on the three pilgrimage festivals.  On this day, we are asked to connect intimately with our own souls, it should follow then, that when we recite Yizkor on this day, we connect to the souls of those who have died. But how do we do this?  How do we connect to their souls when it is so difficult to move beyond the loss?

The earliest source for the recitation of Yizkor is the Midrash Tanchuma, a 6th century Babylonian work of biblical exegesis.  It cites the custom of remembering the departed along with the act of pledging charity on their behalf on the holiday of Yom Kippur.  It is based on the end of the Torah reading on the last day of the festivals, which says, “They shall not appear before the Lord empty handed.  But each with his own gift, (or matnat Yad giving of his hand) according to the blessing God has given you.” Yizkor may just have started as a way for people to give charity in memory of loved ones.  Consider the fact that the individual Yizkor prayers that we will be reciting shortly contain the following line: I pledge Tzedakah, charity for the remembrance of their soul. The midrash tells us that unlike the other times when memory suffices, on Yom Kippur memory is not enough.  We are exhorted quite literally to pay it forward. 

At the heart of all of this, one theme keeps presenting itself.  Memory. At first, we appeal to God’s memory. We recite prayers like Zochreinu l’chayim in the hopes that we can connect with God’s merciful side as the divine memory is stirred during this time of year.  As if that is not enough, we also spend a third of the Musaf service mentioning the times that God remembered the Jewish people in mercy in a show of historical gratitude.  We even recognize that God’s memory will surpass our own by remembering those deeds which we have forgotten.  The memory motif is so strong throughout this holiday period, that one might be tempted to say like a middle child measuring the coca cola levels at 8 years old, nothing is forgotten.

But during Yom Kippur, we are not only mindful of the power of remembering but the danger of forgetting as well.  One of the seminal prayers in the liturgy of Yom Kippur is the Shema Koleinu prayer, when we ask God to hear our prayers mercifully, and allow us to repent.  But at the end of this biblical supplication we find a touching vulnerable moment.  Al Tashicheinu l’et ziknah, kichlot kocheinu al t’azvanu.  Do not cast us aside in old age, do not desert us as our strength wanes.  If we are lucky enough to live to old age, please when we need you most don’t forget us. 

In a NYTimes Magazine article writer Karen Barrow interviewed people with early onset Alzheimer’s and their families.  She writes, “When someone is told that he or she has Alzheimer’s disease, it affects the entire family. Beyond the basic memory decline, there are concerns about maintaining independence, long-term care and holding on to special moments.”  The power of memory can only be appreciated when we experience life around someone who doesn’t have one.  Only then can we understand how the self is intrinsically linked to memory, or more to the point how losing one’s memory is like losing one’s self. 

There is a science to the power of memory as well.  Dr. Rick Hungair is a neuroscientist and memory specialist at Johns Hopkins University.  He describes memory as follows: “When we learn something or experience something,—even as simple as someone’s name—we form connections between neurons in the brain. These synapses create new circuits between nerve cells, essentially remapping the brain. The sheer number of possible connections gives the brain unfathomable flexibility—each of the brain’s 100 billion nerve cells can have 10,000 connections to other nerve cells. Those synapses get stronger or weaker depending on how often we’re exposed to an event. The more we’re exposed to an activity (like a golfer practicing a swing thousands of times) the stronger the connections. The less exposure, however, the weaker the connection, which is why for some, it’s so hard to remember things like people’s names after the first introduction.

In reality though, the kind of memory that Yizkor attempts to awaken goes beyond simple recollection, to what scientists call pro-spective memory.  Prospective memory refers to remembering in order to perform intended actions in the future, not simply remembering to remember. Examples of prospective memory include: remembering to take medicine at night before going to bed, remembering to deliver a message to a friend, and remembering to pick up flowers for a significant other on an anniversary.

It is important to understand prospective memory because of the ubiquitous demands such forward facing recollections require of our every-day lives and also because their failure of can be devastating. For example, aircraft pilots must remember to perform several actions sequentially prior to take-off and landing and failure to perform any one of these actions may result in injury or death. Studies have showed that almost 20% of major airline accidents though rare, can be attributed to prospective memory failures. 

Therefore what we are really pledging to do today, in remembering our loved ones who have died, is to perpetuate the ideals of their lives be it through all different acts of goodness and behavior.  In, remembering them today, we don’t just conjure an image of their face in our minds, but we challenge ourselves to acknowledge how their existence altered the trajectory of our lives. We are charged in turn, to take the action in the coming year. On the festivals Yizkor serves to pause our joy to remember, on YK it calls our memory into action.

But how do we act to truly and properly serve the memory and honor the legacy of those who have died?  In a podcast with bestselling author Malcom Gladwell titled “The Basement Tapes,” Gladwell shared the story of the groundbreaking cardiologist Ivan Frantz and his son Robert.  Ivan Frantz Jr. was a cardiologist who graduated from Harvard Medical School and was a longtime member of the faculty at the University of Minnesota.  His son Robert is also a physician.  In fact, he is also a cardiologist and one of the leading experts on heart transplant surgery at the Mayo Clinic.  You can imagine the younger Dr. Frantz’s surprise when a current investigator and self-proclaimed fan of his father called to get access to the research tapes from the elder Fratnz’s groundbreaking study on eating habits and cholesterol.  Especially considering that this investigator Chris Ramsden was trying to discredit his father’s findings.  So Frantz drove four hours each way, over five times, almost a full day of driving to collect the data, that would ultimately disprove his father’s life work.

As Gladwell interviewed him he couldn’t help but ask Dr. Frantz why it was that he had put so much effort into the process of disproving his father.  His response was brilliant.  He said, “It wasn’t a betrayal because my father would have done the same thing.  He was a humble man, who knew that part of being a scientist was the risk that one day someone will discover that something you believed to be true was in fact false.  Humility was one of his foundational cores, it seems wrong to abandon that now.”  It is heartbreakingly beautiful that in proving his father wrong he was upheld and honored his memory.  He wasn’t honoring a belief, but rather the essence of who his father was as a person.  In Judaism, this is what we call the nefesh or the soul.  Robert Frantz drove a long way to prove his father his hero, wrong.  And in so doing he honored his father’s nefesh, his soul in the best way possible.

Gladwell conducted this interview just a few short days after his own father had died.  He was grappling with the question of how a child properly honors their parent after they have died.  I think we all struggle with the best way to remember and perpetuate the legacies of the people we have lost.  To find a balance where we keep them with us by using the loss not only as fuel for memory, but also as an impetus to action.  Marilynne Robinson, the award-winning novelist writes that, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls after it. Memory is the seat not only of prophecy but of miracle as well.”  Memory is a powerful force and on the day when we are asked to look at ourselves more closely than any other, it is the memory of others that drives us forward in the coming year. Our brush with mortality juxtaposed with the memory of those who have died, is a clarion call that now is the time to remember what they taught us by applying it to better ourselves and the world around us, so that some day when we too have run out of time, people will be able to do the same for us.

That is why the repentance and remembrance of these holy days has become a commandment with as much force as anything we are commanded to do in Judaism. If we allow our loved ones to live on in memory alone, we fail to keep that person alive. Sometimes an amber goblet is just something from which one can drink kosher for Passover coca cola.  But sometimes it is much more.  These kinds of memories, inspire us today, more than any other time to keep people no longer here alive.  What we are tasked with specifically on Yom Kippur with the recitation of Yizkor is a kind of memory that inspires us to action.  The kind of memory that sustains us in life’s most difficult times.  The kind of memory that has the power to transform our lives.  And the kind of memory that keeps those who we loved so dearly in our hearts and our souls for as long as we walk this earth. May the memories of all those we recall today, live on in each of us a lasting blessing. Amen




Rabbi Gruenberg Yom Kippur/Yizkor Sermon – 2018 from Chizuk Amuno Congregation on Vimeo.