“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
This quote from Charles Dickens pretty much sums up how I feel about September and the Hebrew month of Tishri. These months which always overlap to some degree, this year almost entirely, are a roller coaster of emotion. September and Tishri both bring great joy, as we celebrate the Jewish holy days, family birthdays and our anniversary. They also bring the most profound sadness, as one of those September birthdays should have been celebrated by my sister. We also say Yizkor, the memorial prayers, twice in Tishri, on Yom Kippur and again on Simchat Torah. And two days after Simchat Torah, I will observe the fourth yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of my sister, Ellen.
Last night I lit two yahrzeit candles, one for my sister and one for my mother. This is a traditional observance whenever Yizkor, the memorial prayers, are said as they are on Yom Kippur. Lighting these candles never seems to get any easier, even though the day to day certainly has. Last night especially, I felt a great reluctance to light them, almost as though not lighting them might somehow bring them back. With a pain in my heart, I lit each candle.
So why do we/I continue to perform these rituals when they’re so painful? If the every day is okay, why do we inflict the pain of Yizkor upon ourselves?
There is great power in remembering. Without these rituals, we might actually choose just to go through our lives being and feeling okay. With them, we have a structure that forces us to remember.
This year, as I made numerous challot for the holidays, I remembered the year my sister and I figured out together (over the phone) how to make a braided round challah. I remember how much she loved to open her home to family and friends and the guest who had nowhere to go for Shabbat and holidays. I remember how the silliest thing could set us off and how we laughed together for hours at a time.
This year, I remember my mother’s finally embracing Jewish learning once she retired and my parents moved to a retirement community in Florida. I remember the look of pride on her face as she sat in the front row of the congregation as I sang the High Holy Day liturgy as cantorial soloist. I remember how utterly devastated she was by my sister’s death, and how much joy she reaped from her grandchildren.
In a few hours, we will say the Yizkor prayers. My heart is already heavy with the anticipation. No matter how painful remembering is, I owe it to my loved ones, who filled my life with blessing. And I owe it to myself, because remembering their examples makes me a better person.
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