Yom Kippur am 5782 “Our Parents our Teachers”


This morning I am going to give a sermon on something I have never given a sermon on before. Or  I am going to give a sermon on the meaning of our Yizkor service. I realize that many of you still have both parents living, and therefore do not recite Yizkor. But please,  bear with me! There is something in this sermon for you as well.

When I was growing up,  the largest crowds in my synagogue were, by far,  for the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur. In those days,  like now, one had to be a member of the synagogue to get  a ticket for the High Holidays. But for the Yizkor service, members  whose parents were alive, and therefore not saying Yizkor, would give up their seats in the sanctuary so those who were saying Yizkor but did not have a ticket could take their places. In those days, as in ours, one of a rabbi’s most important duties was to comfort the bereaved and honor the memory of the dead. It was said that a rabbi had to master the “Three Whys” of Jewish life — Yitgadal, Yarhzeit, and Yizkor! 

The Talmud lists nine ways in which mourning for a parent is different from mourning for a sibling or for a  spouse, or  for a child.   Of the nineThere are two that are particularly  relevant for us today.
When mourning for  a sibling, a spouse or a child , a person may cut his hair or shave after 30 days. When mourning for a parent, he may not do so until his friends say, “You need a haircut!” or “You need to cut that beard!” 

When mourning for others, a person may attend a celebratory event  after 30 days. When mourning for a parent, the mourner must refrain from attending such an event  until 12 months have passed.

Sometime during the Middle Ages  the rabbis instituted the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish for those who lost a sibling,  a spouse, a parent  or  a child. For a parent we recite the kaddish for 11 months following the death. For all others, we recite the kaddish for one month. 

Clearly the mourning requirements for a parent are not lengthier or more intense because the pain is greater upon losing a parent. We understand that the grief we experience upon losing a child, the  grief  we feel upon losing a spouse, or the  grief  we feel upon losing a sibling who dies before their time can be more intense, more heart wrenching and more excruciating  than the grief we feel for a parent who dies after having lived a long life. Yet our  Jewish tradition singles out special respect to be shown for parents. The Ten Commandments specify that we should honor our parents. The Torah threatens death for anyone who curses or strikes their parents. And, as we have seen, the Talmud requires special mourning rites for parents that are not required for others close to us. This special quality of our relationship with our parents is carried over in the text of our Yizkor service today. 

This morning I want to analyze this traditional text with you.. The various remembrances in our Yizkor book — remembering our fathers, our mothers, our spouses, our siblings and our friends and relatives — begin with the same phrase. “Yizkor Elokim Nishmat” — May G-d remember the soul of…..” What first strikes us is the mention of G-d in this formula — “May G-d remember”! We do not begin with “I hereby remember”… We do not begin, “I rise today to remember ”. We are asking G-d to remember! We are acknowledging the Creator. But why do we ask G-d to remember? What do we ask G-d to remember? 

The key to the answer to these questions are found   in the text of the Hebrew, which, for some reason, is not translated in our booklet. It is not a minor omission of translation. In fact, I would say there is a major omission in the translation and a major error of commission. Something left out that should be included, and something added that should have been left out.  Let me explain. The English translation says “May G-d remember the soul of my beloved”…… and continues with the appropriate person we are remembering — father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, friend. That is not what the Hebrew says. The Hebrew says, “Yizkor Elohim nishmat Avi MORI; Yizor Elohim nishmat Imi MORATI — May G-d remember the soul of my father, MY TEACHER; May G-d remember the soul of my mother, MY TEACHER. It does not say “My DEAR father” or “My BELOVED father”. It does not say “My DEAR mother”  or “My BELOVED Mother”. It says “My father, MY TEACHER,”  “My mother, MY TEACHER.” Period. 

In the words of the famous  song, “What’s Love Got to do with It?” The Torah never commands us to love our parents! The Talmud doesn’t teach us to love our parents! Our tradition teaches that we should respect our parents. We should honor our parents. We should even fear our parents. After all, our parents gave us life. They fed us,  sheltered us, they protected us, they raised us.  They educated us and transmitted Jewish values to us. In the eyes of our tradition,  We owe them a special debt that we owe nobody else.  

The author Steve Goodier tells the following story about a parent as a teacher:  A young school teacher had a dream that an angel appeared to him and said, “You will be given a child who will grow up to become a world leader. How will you prepare her? How will you challenge her intelligence? How will you help her grow in confidence? In short, what kind of education will you provide that she can become one of the world’s truly GREAT leaders?”

The young teacher awoke in a cold sweat. It had never occurred to him before — any ONE of his present or future students could be the person described in his dream. How would he prepare them to rise to ANY POSITION to which they may aspire? 

This student would need experience as well as instruction. She would need to know how to solve problems of all kinds. She would need to become knowledgeable, but more than that. She would also need strong values  to stand firm   and  to develop a strong  character. She would need self-assurance as well as the ability to listen well and work with others. 

 This realization made the young educator think differently about every young person who walked through his classroom door.   Every pupil became, for him, a future world leader. He saw each one, not as they were, but as they could be. He expected the best from his students, yet tempered it with gentleness. He taught each one as if the future of the world depended on his instruction.

After many years, a woman he knew rose to a position of world prominence. He realized that she must surely have been the girl described in his dream. Only she was not one of his students – she was his daughter. For all the various teachers in her life, her father was the best.

Some parents go to university, they may get a teaching degree and become very skilled at teaching. Other parents might not have the same opportunity to study, yet we call them both teachers! Of course all parents are teachers of their children. A child looks very closely at their parents. Children  not only listen to what  their  parents say, they  very closely observe what their  parents do. Children also learn a great deal from their parents by seeing what they do not do. 

Life often turns out different from this story about the teacher and his daughter. Consider this excerpt from an article in the online magazine “Kveller” written by a woman named Heli Wiener.

I was estranged from my biological father for 12 years before he died. My parents got divorced when I was 8 years old. At that tender age, my dad actually sat me down to privately discuss their divorce. He referenced famous celebrities who had broken up and got remarried. He told me he was going to “get better” (my father had been battling drug and alcohol addiction) and come back to our family.

I believed him. Like a little lost puppy, I waited until I finally had my closure at 20, when he died. I was never able to say goodbye or explain what his leaving had done to me.

She continues: Yizkor talks about the deceased being our teacher, and in most circumstances, a father is. It also talks about this man being righteous. Given the fact that I spent the majority of my life learning lessons with no help from my father, he didn’t feel very righteous to me. The truth was that my father hadn’t been in my life for too long to remember, and now I was forced to face that being the end of our story. That alone was the painful part—his death was just the icing on the cake.

Truth be told, and given the fact we are all flawed human beings there is no such thing as a parent who is a good teacher all of the time. Some parents, weighed down by all kinds of stresses, preoccupations or illness, might neglect some or most of their parental responsibilities. If they do not provide guidance, if they don’t teach their children values about how to take care of themselves, how to treat others, how to show compassion, tolerance, respect and acceptance, one might say that they have failed as teachers. They have not fulfilled their role as teachers to their children.  Even  when  a parent takes their role as a teacher seriously, they too may have failed, at times, as teachers to their children. Maybe they were too heavy handed at times.  Maybe they were too rigid or too critical, or maybe they were over-protective, or inattentive and neglectful at times.   Sigmund Freud called “parenting” one of the two impossible professions, along with governing a nation. 

This is the reason our Yizkor prayer does not begin with the words, “I remember my father, my teacher”, or “I remember my mother, my teacher”. Instead, we ask G-d to remember them — so as  to forgive them! For according to our tradition, it is not only the living who are in need of forgiveness. The dead are also in need of forgiveness. The rabbis teach that the day is called “Yom Ha-Kippurim” — using the plural form in the Hebrew — because the day atones for both the living and the dead. So Yizkor is not just an exercise in remembering. It is not just a time to evoke the memory of our mother and our father. It is that, but it is more! In reciting Yizkor, we remember our parents and we ask G-d to remember and to  forgive our mothers and our fathers, who at times did not teach us what we needed to know, who did not act as the role models that we needed, who sometimes let us down, who sometimes failed us.  

When our parents are gone, they continue to live within us. Our parents molded, shaped and guided our development. So when we recite Yizkor, we remember our parents who influenced us and helped to make us who we are today. And we ask G-d to remember our parents, and forgive them, for none of our parents were perfect, they all had flaws, they all made mistakes, they were human beings as we are. 

Perhaps in asking G-d to forgive our parents, we can take the first steps to forgiving them ourselves.

Gmar Chatima Tovah

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash