Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon: Our Inherited Authority on Grief

Posted on October 16, 2022

When my dad sits in services, he does a lot of what I call synagogue math. “If we’re on page 45 now, and the Aleinu is on page 116,” and we’re averaging about 5 minutes per page…then how much longer do I have to sit here…?” (If you’re wondering, he’ll be watching Shir Tikva services after the fact…and playing it back at 2x’s the speed…).  

I imagine if my dad were sitting here at the start of the Yizkor service, he’d be a little perplexed. “If the Yizkor service starts on page 538 and ends on page 607, then that means…” “Wait a minute…isn’t this service supposed to be half an hour…?”  

For those of you wondering along with my dad– 

  1. Yes–the Yizkor service is around half an hour  
  2. Yes–our Machzor dedicates almost 70 pages to Yizkor  
  3. No–we don’t collectively read even half of those 70 pages  

If you’ve been doing any synagogue math along with my dad, you might be asking another, related question: Why dedicate so many pages to one service?  

I did not edit this Machzor, but I have a guess at an answer.  Yizkor, as Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand puts it, “is the one moment in the Jewish liturgical calendar when what matters most is not communal but individual memory.” (1) On Passover, we’re commanded to remember our collective story of liberation. On Sukkot, we remember our collective story of wandering in the desert. But during Yizkor, Rabbi Gelfand says, “Instead of collectively conjuring our communal past, each of us stands personally consumed by our own singular memories of relatives and friends who have died… Yizkor provides a communal space for individual reflection and inward memorializing.”

We stand collectively, but absorbed in our own personal memories. We sit here together, but we experience our own individual grief.  

Grief and loss is never the same for any two people. Some of you might be sitting here lost in a sea of grief, unsure where to find the anchor, hopeless about if you’ll ever see the shore. Some of you may be caught in feelings of regret as you reflect on your loved ones who have passed, wishing that you had said or done things differently, replaying the same memory or conversation. And some of you might be feeling okay, and perhaps feeling some guilt over not feeling enough sadness in this moment. 

I think that the editors of this Machzor dedicated nearly 70 pages to Yizkor in the hopes that each person might find something that speaks to them personally, and find something that speaks to them personally every year.  

Maybe last year, you were feeling okay, and this year you’re feeling unanchored. Maybe last year you were stuck on one memory and this year it feels a little easier to let go. At each Yizkor, each year, we arrive at this moment as a different person.  

I remember walking into my Saba and Safta’s house (my grandfather and grandmother’s house) after my first year of rabbinical school and wandering absentmindedly toward the living room bookshelf. Among the photographs, I suddenly noticed a beautiful set of Talmud–rabbinic texts–that I had never noticed before. I opened one up to discover a handwritten note to my Saba. I was suddenly awash in a new wave of grief over his death–wondering what conversations we could have had, what questions he might have asked me about my studies. My learning had led me to new grief, and to a new way of remembering.  

For you it might not be a bookshelf. It might be a new child, a new job, a death, or even the discovery of an old photo album.  

The beauty of Yizkor is that it meets us in all of these moments and it meets us however we are. The beauty of Yizkor is that it just asks us to show up. To show up with whatever we are feeling. To show up however we are at the end of this year. The service of Yizkor might evoke sadness, but nowhere in the nearly 70 pages of Yizkor does it say “Please enter an emotional state of sadness before reciting this prayer.”  

Yizkor–the very name of this service–is the tzivui or the command form of the Hebrew verb zachar–to remember. We show up to this service not to feel a certain way, but to remember. Yizkor invites us to ask ourselves:  

What do I want to and need to remember right now? 

How can I use Yizkor as a jumpstart out of or into the way I want to approach grief about this person or these people, this year?  

How did my person or people inspire me, and what legacy did they leave to me?  

And the yizkor prayer itself–contained within the service of the same name–emphasizes the “I”—the individual. In the first line of the prayer, we insert the name of the person or people we are remembering. We recite the line, “May I bring honor to this person’s memory by word and deed.” We recognize that even if we’re sitting next to someone who is remembering that same person, that we each have our own relationship with them. We each have our own experiences with them. We are each awash in different memories—different joys, regrets, and reflections.  

Our individual grief doesn’t just affect the way we say these prayers, it affects our actions, our behaviors, and our lives. In saying “May I bring honor to this person’s memory by word and deed,” we recognize that a person’s legacy doesn’t die with them.  We remember them and we honor them—through our words and through our deeds.  

My family collectively still uses my Saba’s goofy expressions. We still give his spiel about the afikomen each year. We still give tzedakah to the organizations he cherished. And individually, we have our own way of carrying on his legacy. I study from his books. My dad carries on his law practice. My mom hosts the Shabbat dinners that have always been so dear to him.  

As we remember our loved ones, the service of Yizkor and the prayer of Yizkor does its own reminding. Yizkor says: rememberyour grief is yours. You alone get to set the terms.  

Your grief is yours. You alone get to set the terms. 

I am not the inventor of this idea. Not even close. Our rabbis have been teaching us this for generations. In Mishnah Berachot, we learn that Rabban Gamliel, one of the greatest sages of all time didn’t follow traditional mourning rituals. His students questioned his choices. “Are you sure?” they asked, “Didn’t you teach us differently?” And he responded simply: “I am not like other people. I am unique in this particular way.” (2) 

In Moed Katan, a tractate of Talmud that deals with the intersection of mourning and holidays, there are pages and pages of discussion about the rules of mourning. And our sages don’t just list the rules (3). Much of that discussion, many of those pages, are a record of our ancient ancestors asking and answering the question: “What are the exceptions? When do we bend the rules?” When do we adjust these standards to meet a particular person’s particular needs? I’ll save you some learning of those pages if you wish–the moral of the story is that the exceptions are just as common, if not more common, than the rule.

As author Anita Diamant describes: “Every Jewish mourner follows the path of all the Jewish mourners who preceded them. When you rise to say Kaddish, [when you rise to say Yizkor], you are shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone who stands or ever stood as you do, recalling a beloved face that is gone but not forgotten.” (4)  

Your grief is yours, and yet–  

you’re here, 

sitting here,  

with an us,  

with a we.  

With the people physically here.  

With the people remotely here.  

With the people you’re remembering.  

With all the generations that came before us.  


We have inherited the authority to be the experts on our own grief.  

So this is my invitation to you. To use this time as YOU need it.  

Not as you think you’re “supposed” to use it. Not as you think you’re “supposed” to need it. But as YOU need it. To reflect on the memories that YOU need to reflect on right now. To feel what YOU need to feel right now.  

We have inherited the authority to be the experts on our own grief. Let’s use it.

1: May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman.

2: Mishnah Berachot 2:6

3: See Moed Katan, e.g. B.T. Moed Katan 24a. For a detailed index, click here.

4: Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew by Anita Diamant