Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
Why Yizkor on Yom Tov?
Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 06:21:47 PM
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On each of the last days of the Shalosh Regalim, it is traditional that the Yizkor service be recited. Even those who, for one reason or another, have not been in regular attendance at the Synagogue, gravitate to it at this time. There is a feeling of responsibility and respect for our departed parents which impels us to participate in this service.

It seems strange and paradoxical that a service of mourning and tears be included in the ritual for these joyous festivals. Yom Kippur, which is certainly a very solemn occasion, is an appropriate moment for the Yizkor service. The serious mood of the Day of Atonement and the emtions of guilt evoked by Yizkor blend well together. But how are we to understand the Yizkor service as part of the ritual of the Shalosh Regalim which are holidays of joy ? Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot though each has a different motif, are similar in the underlying feeling of gratitude, thanksgiving and joy. Why, then, is the solemn and mournful service of Yizkor incorporated into the Shalosh Regalim ritual ?

In considering this matter, let us examine another occasion which is perhaps the happiest moment in one's life. That occasion is the moment of marriage when bride and groom pledge their undying loyalty and love to each other. This is truly a time of great joy. Yet there too we find a strange paradox. At the conclusion of the marriage ceremony, we break a glass. There are some who give as the reason for this strange custom, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. But in tractate Bracoth 31a, we find another reason given. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Ashi had arranged a great wedding celebration in which everyone participated. Suddenly at the height of the festivities, Rabbi Ashi appeared carrying in his hands a priceless glass vase. In full view of all present, he hurled the vase to the floor and it was shattered into smithereens. The entire gathering was suddenly saddened at this spectacle and a hush fell over everyone. When the celebration was resumed, it was in a more quiet and subdued tone. The Tosafoth comment : מכאן נהגו לשבר זכוכית בנשואין "This is the basis of the custom for the breaking of a glass at the wedding ceremony." What did they mean to imply ?

This is indicative of the approach of Halacha to the conflicting experiences of life. It is precisely this approach which is emphasized at this solemn moment of Yizkor and commemoration. Judaism has never tried to escape from life. The Jew is required to face up to life with all its joys and sorrows. In life both experiences are to be found. They are frequently interwoven. Yet since we are only human, we tend to be overwhelmed by our experiences at the moment and the emotions which we feel as a consequence. At the moment of joy, we tend to forget that there is such a thing as sorrow. And conversely, at the moment of sorrow we tend to forget that there is such an experience as joy. Our religion wanted to develop within us the capacity to withstand the overwhelming character of either of these powerful emotions; To be able to carry on in life on an even keel without being overturned and destroyed; To be involved in life and yet to stand above it and survey it from the plane of eternity and sobriety.

"Face life without being overwhelmed by it." This is what Judaism teaches us. It is therefore precisely at the moment of one's greatest joy that one is reminded of the fact that there are experiences of the other kind as well. That is why at the moment of one's greatest sorrow, at the freshly dug grave of a loved one, the Kaddish is recited as a reminder to the mourner that life must continue. Though the mourner is shattered and crushed by the loss which he has sustained, though he may be filled with bitterness and accusation, he is commanded to stand up and recite the Kaddish, praising G-d and affirming his faith in the meaningfulness of life. There will yet be joy and there will yet be fulfillment. All is not over, though it may seem so at the time of the burial. "Do not be overwhelmed! Carry on!".

This is symbolic of Yizkor. At the conclusion of the holidays of joy, when we are in a happy mood, we are reminded that there are sorrows in life, as well. Just as the breaking of the glass takes place at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, so does the recital of the Yizkor take place on the last day of the holiday. Both of these occassions, the wedding and the Shalosh Regalim, are moments of joy and should be observed as such. But there is ever constant reminder of the possibility of the other kind of experience.

Just as Yizkor teaches us to temper our jovial moments, with solemnity; may G-d help us tone down the sorrowful occasions of life with overtones of faith and confidence.

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