From Descendant to Ancestor: The Power of Names©
Yom Kippur Yizkor 5784/2023
Rabbi David Baum
You may be surprised by the question I’m most often asked as a rabbi:
“What time is Yizkor?”
The second most often asked question:
“Can I buy tickets just for Yizkor?"
Growing up, I always left the room for Yizkor, as was the custom of our family. I remember my first Yizkor service as a young adult when I wasn’t with my parents for the first time for a holiday. Finally, I could see what was happening behind the curtain. I was expecting something magical to happen, but I was disappointed. Essentially, I was just saying the names of loved ones lost. Thankfully, at the time, my list was short.
But today is different.
Today, I am not here by choice as I have been in the past, today, it is my obligation to be here, to remember my mother, to say her name, and the names of so many others our family has lost.
Today, these prayers are different for me, because I am different.
I realize now why people want to know when Yizkor starts, and if they only go to one service a year, it will be this one. As time goes on, the memories become more distant, but a couple of times out of the year, we come together in our desire to not be so lonely when it comes to dealing with our loss.
But here’s my question to you who wanted to be here on time today, maybe even just for this service: “Who are you remembering and how does it make you feel to be here?”
For those who read your weekly email, I asked you to write down the names of the people you will be remembering today. I want you to take out that card and look at that list. How does it make you feel? I wonder if anyone feels lonely looking at those names because they are no longer there for you to talk to.
When I would feel lonely, I knew that I could always call my mom. I pick up the phone almost daily and want to tap on her name in my ‘favorites’ on my cell phone so I can hear her voice again like I used to just eight weeks ago.
I don’t have my phone with me, but her name is with me now. All I want to do right now is say her name and find a connection with her again, and I’m with hundreds of others who are here for the same reason.
Speaking about names, a couple of weeks ago, our son’s take-home assignment from school was to interview his parents, so I sat down for my interview this week, and I was stumped on the very first question:
My son asked me, “First question, who were you named after and why?” I was already stumped!
I know vaguely who I am named after, my maternal and paternal grandmother’s respective brothers, but I know nothing about them whatsoever.
Then he asked, “Well who am I named after?” This question was easy, I was able to tell him who he was named after, details about the people, and why we gave him those names.
Suddenly, I felt a tinge of envy. My son has something I don’t have: a picture of my past, of my own name.
In the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, the Torah readings in Deuteronomy concern itself with an interesting character: the farmer. The farmer is a lonely profession. If you are in business you talk to the people, but farmers talk to the land. All year, day after day, from dawn to dusk, the farmer works his field, usually alone.
And so we read about an interesting mitzvah: the farmer is forced to leave his isolated plot of land, once a year, and come to Jerusalem to offer his first fruits. Along the way, the Mishnah describes how the farmers would gather together, and they would come in unison to Jerusalem. Little by little, they realize that they aren’t so alone. The residents of Jerusalem would leave the city to greet them, standing in their honor and yelling out, “Brothers, come in peace.” Even the king would greet them. For one time a year, they were embraced by the community.
This makes the lonely farmer, who produces so many that city dwellers enjoy, feel that they are a part of something bigger than just themselves.
But bringing their first fruits also does something else - it connects them to something greater than community, history, and God’s relationship to his ancestors. When the farmer brings his first fruits, he has to recite the following verses:
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב׃
וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה׃
וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־יְי אֱ–לֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְי אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת־ענְיֵנוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת־לַחֲצֵנוּ׃
וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְי מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים׃
וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ׃
וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת־רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר־נָתַתָּה לִּי יְהֹוָה וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ לִפְנֵי יְי אֱ–לֹהֶיךָ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לִפְנֵי יְי אֱ–לֹהֶיךָ׃
Arami Oved Avi…
“My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt few in number and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.” Deuteronomy 26:5-10
You may be craving some matzah right now as you hear these words, and not just because you’re fasting but because they are the same words we say at the Pesach Seder.
It is an interesting text for farmers to recite. One would think that they would give thanks for the rain, the sun, and even the crops themselves. Rather, they must recall and retell the story of their people — the story of their ancestors. By uttering these words, the Israelites locate themselves not only in the present moment, standing before the priest in Jerusalem, but also in the past, casting themselves as living links in a holy chain stretching back generations. They feel less alone, and a part of something greater.
Sometimes, that link is hard to see in daily life.
When I stand under the chuppah with a couple, I tell them that this is the beginning of their journey from descendant to ancestor. I used to think that you became an ancestor when you had children, but now I feel differently.
I recently had lunch with a dear friend who also lost his mother this year, Rabbi David Seth Kirshner. He said to me, “I believe that you only truly become an adult once you lose a parent.”
Unfortunately, I have completed that journey. I was not surprised by the grief I felt, but I was surprised with another emotion I felt: loneliness, but tefillah, prayer with you, helped me.
Perhaps we begin the Amidah by invoking the names of our ancestors reminds us that we too, and those we lost, can be a part of that list one day. We are not alone.
When I said the Amidah before my mother passed away, I didn’t necessarily have a picture in my head of the patriarchs and matriarchs, but after my mother passed, every time I said the Amidah, and I got to Rachel, my voice cracked, and I saw her as clear as day in front of me. What a gift to see this prayer that I have said so many times for almost my entire life in a new way. The Amidah will never be the same for me. In me, is my ancestor, my mother; and by connecting with her name, I became an intergenerational self.
Rabbi Jethro Berkman writes the following:
“We are growing increasingly aware that it is emotionally healthy to know where we come from. A large body of research indicates that connections to friends, family and community are an essential part of living a happy, healthy life, and responding to life’s challenges with resilience.
One example of this is work by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush from Emory University, who asked children to answer questions about their family histories. Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?
The results were striking. The more children knew about their family history, the higher their self-esteem, the higher their sense of control over their lives, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness. Summing up his research, Duke said that children who are the most resilient have what he and Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” In other words, they are aware that they are part of something larger than they are.
The most resilient and healthy children are the ones with a sense of self that is rooted in family stories of the past that will help shape the stories of the future, who are embedded in a saga that extends beyond their lives. And the stories of the Jewish people, both mythic and historical, can function much like these family stories. When we tell these stories and locate ourselves within them, we build within us an intergenerational self.”
Our people’s sense of the intergenerational self might be our greatest gift and strength.
On Yom Kippur, we remember the national tragedies we have faced throughout our history during the Martyrology Service.
Many empires have tried to destroy us, but the Czar was especially effective. At the end of the 19th century, the Czar of Russia decided that he would solve the Jewish problem by dividing the Jews into thirds: he would convert a third, expel a third, and kill a third through his pogroms.
The problem is, no Jews would convert! So he devised a plan, he would forcibly take all Jewish boys at the age of eight and above and force them to serve in the army for ten years. In the army of the Czar, the boys forgot who they were, and where they came from.
There was a policy that the Russian government had at the time where Russian families had to house the soldiers. One time, an elderly Jewish couple in a tiny Russian village were forced to take in one of these young soldiers. The soldier made the elderly couple leave their bedroom, and he moved in. The couple tried to make conversation with him, but all he would answer was nyet, or no in Russian. Then, Friday night came, and the old woman lit Shabbat candles, then the old man started praying, and singing Jewish songs. Suddenly, the young man with a hardened heart started softening a bit. Suddenly, the soldier started talking and asking questions. Something seemed familiar to him about this scene.
He sat with the couple at the dinner for the first time, and as he heard the sounds, smelled the smells of Shabbat, he had an urge to go into his bag and pull out a small velvet bag with a drawstring.
He asked the old man, “Can you tell me what this is?”
The old man opened the bag and found a children’s talit and tefillin, and small siddur. The old man’s eyes opened up wide: “Who gave this to you?” The soldier answer, “I have always had them, I don’t remember when…”
The old man opened the prayer book and started crying. He recognized his own handwriting, and read the inscription out loud:
“To our son, Yossele, taken from us as a boy. Should you ever see your bar mitzvah, know that you are a Jew, and be proud. Know that wherever you are, your mama and papa always love you.”
The soldier tried to fight back his tears, but he couldn’t. Suddenly, his tears and the old man’s tears melded together as they hugged and wept upon each other.
And the old man whispered to that young man, “Welcome home Yossele, welcome home.” (story from Capturing the Moon by Rabbi Ed Feinstein)
What I love about this story is that this young boy not only found his Jewish soul again, but also, his name: Yossele. Now, this boy who was taken as a child soldier has something that is truly priceless: a name, a history, and now, a legacy.
Rabbi Jack Riemer once told me that the greatest sense of loneliness one can feel is to be an orphan in history. It is no mistake that one of the customs we do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to visit the graves of our parents and grandparents. And as we look down, we see their names etched on a Matzeivah, a gravestone, and we place a rock on it. Just as rocks are eternal, so too are our names, as long as we pass them on, and as long as we tell their story.
On Yom Kippur, the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies alone, but he isn’t really alone. On his breastplate, he has stones representing each tribe by name. The Torah says that the stones are Avnei Zicharon L’Vnei Israel - stones of remembrance of the Israelite people.
We always carry the names of our loved ones with us, whether we know it or not, but today, we remember those stones, we remember those names.
The Israeli Poet Zelda famously wrote a poem - Each one of us has a name:
Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents
Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls
Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing
ֿEach of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love
Each of us has a name given by our celebrations and given by our work
Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death.
I told you that I did not know who I was named after, but I never told you the post-script. After my son asked me who I was named after, and I couldn’t answer, I asked my own father.
He showed me a document from Yad Vashem that his grandfather, a survivor himself, filled out for Chaim David Davidovits, who was his son, and, also, in a weird way, my father’s uncle, who was murdered at the age of 10 in Auschwitz, with his mother and his little sister, on the 13th of Sivan, 5704, June 4, 1944.
Now, as I mark my 44th year on earth, and the first Yizkor that I must attend, I carry that name with me, along with my mother’s name, along with so many others.
I want you to take that piece of paper out with your loved ones’ names on it. Now, how do you feel?
My blessing for you is that you feel less lonely than you did at the beginning when you look at those names. Those names are your Avnei Zicharon, your rocks of remembrance. They will always be there for you.
My blessing for you is to embrace your intergenerational self. Reach out to your children and grandchildren, to your parents and grandparents. Learn about where you came from, who you are, and who you are meant to be.
Sharing the stories of our families and our people reminds us that if we look beyond the edges of our lifespans, we see that we are not just drifting through time, but that each of us is a precious word, in a beautiful, ever-unfolding story.
Each one of us has, each one of us is a name.