Shavuot Yizkor – Past and Present Move Forward Together

Judaism teaches that our past lives in the present.


Judaism teaches that our past lives in the present. It not just our minds imagining what it must have been like and integrating those lessons – Judaism transports us. We were actually were there.  On this holiday of Shavuot which celebrates receiving Torah, tradition teaches that the souls of the unborn – which mean you and me – stood together with our ancestors at Mount Sinai. The Rabbis imagine that at the moment of receiving Torah, each person experienced it in their own, unique way. As we stand at Sinai, we explore all the past voices and their insights, letting it inform and inspire us, as we bring our own voices to the experience.

Picture standing at Sinai together with the voices, memories and images of our past.  Let them speak to you.  Hearing those voices strengthens and informs in profound ways.  Judaism teaches us to bring to the present.  Today we do that in two ways: First, we allow ourselves to stand at Sinai.  Second, we recite Yizkor, a prayer said four times during the year where we remember loved ones who have died.  We listen to them, feel their presence and remain in dialogue.  The past lives as we bring it into the present. [Knowing that many who are not Jewish join our services – extend this theme to your own life.  Connected to wisdom, history and legacy of the ancestors and past is a beautiful, shared experience.)

Transport yourself back to Mount Sinai.  Think about wisdom of our ancestors. Lift up the memory of a loved one no longer with us – picture their presence and essence. What would you ask them?  What might they tell you about this moment in history?  Exploring their experience and stories informs and inspires.  As past and present merge, we walk toward future informed with wisdom as you weave in your own voice, experience and insights.  Shavuot’s transporting us to Mt Sinai and recitation of Yizkor lifting up our relatives allows the past to live right now and to whisper to our hearts.

Every ancestor was there.  Try focusing on one or two from our long history.  This morning I also want to focus on one specific ancestor who possessed incredible wisdom – and that is Ruth. I select her because we read the book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot as it focuses both on celebrating harvest and receiving Torah – key themes of the holiday.  I also select her because she was not born Jewish – yet tradition teaches that those who embrace Judaism, were with us at Sinai as well.  To have voices who had different backgrounds and upbringing sharing their wisdom and whispering to our hearts enriches and expands us.  Let’s listen to Ruth’s voice, weaving it together with voices of the loved ones – as we find our own voices.

Dear Ruth, wise ancestors, beloved relatives- what wisdom would you share for this moment?  Let me share five lessons that filled my heart as I tried to listen carefully to the past and bring it to this moment.

Lesson 1: We have been through tough times before and we’ve made it through. Ruth would tell about living through famine and how her husband’s family had to leave their homeland and come to her country of Moab for food.  Other ancestors standing at Sinai would tell of being slaves in Egypt, and other moments of displacement and suffering over the generations.  They would share stories of pain. We don’t deny or diminish the pain and suffering of the world – we give voice to it and acknowledge it. I can hear Ruth emotionally sharing about losing her husband, brother in law, father in law – and that pain and sadness are real parts of life that stay with us. That honesty is part of Yizkor – remembering loved ones whose loss leaves us bereft. And together with that loss is the belief that we will move forward with meaning and purpose. Our ancestors who left slavery did not allow that experience to embitter them – it transformed them as they taught NO ONE should ever suffer slavery and that our eyes should see and hearts should open to all in need. Ruth would share how she moved forward by clinging to the love of her mother in law Naomi. She found new love in Boaz who became her husband and with whom she had a beloved child.

Our ancestors believed in, and bequeathed to us a legacy that things would get better. As we go back to Sinai, listen to Ruth and think about our ancestors and your relatives as they reassure us: “It will be okay. We have done this before.”.  On this day when we all stand together receiving Torah and remembering loved ones – let their perspective shape us.

Lesson 2: The key to surviving, coping and thriving amidst pain lies in embracing kindness/chesed. The word chesed is repeated throughout the story of Ruth. Chesed is kindness extended without expectation of it coming back. Ruth’s essence is kindness.

When she and Naomi return to Judea, they are destitute.  Two widows without husbands for economic support. They rely on the kindness of others who open their fields to them to glean.  As Ruth goes out to glean in the fields, picking up the wheat that has fallen amidst the harvest, she goes alone – Naomi stays home. Maybe she was sparing Naomi the embarrassment of people associating her with poverty. Kindness is knowing what might hurt another and gently preventing that from happening.   Maybe she was aware of the physical strain of working in the fields and wanted to spare Naomi that burden. Kindness is seeing how you might help in ways another might never ask. 

Ruth worked from morning until night, and people noticed her kindness.  In fact, when Boaz saw her chesed, it ignited sparks of love.  Kindness begets kindness – Naomi saw what was going on with Boaz and Ruth and hatched a risky plan to bring them together. She emerges from her grief by helping her beloved daughter in law. Chesed transforms sadness into meaning. It gives life purpose.

This lesson from Ruth, our ancestors and relatives has been guiding us. These past months have been defined by small and large acts of kindness: buying groceries, making masks, reaching out, medical professionals and essential workers risking life to save lives.  We make it through tough times by deepening chesed. Let Ruth and other people from our past inspire us.  As you prepare for Yizkor, call to memory people of the past who have taught you chesed.  Hold onto that legacy and let it become an even more beautiful part of your story.

Lesson 3: Love changes everything.  Ruth intuitively understands that you cope with loss by love. She insists on staying with her mother in law Naomi.  Every bit of conventional wisdom would tell her not to go with Naomi to Judea.  It’s not her home – she’ll encounter prejudice. She’ll be separated from her family of origin. She will encounter economic insecurity. But Ruth knows the healing power of love and has the courage to embrace it despite conventional wisdom frowning upon her choice.   I hear her saying, “Hold onto love.  It is the only way to get through tough times.”

So many of us have held onto one another – even from a distance.  Those connections have helped us through this. In fact, many have grown in understanding of what love is and what it should be.  We are learning to listen more carefully, to be a little more patient, to connect differently. As you prepare for Yizkor, think about what your loved ones would teach you about love – and really listen.

         Lesson 4: Gratitude. We are a people defined by gratitude. Ruth would tell us how grateful she was for a mother in law like Naomi. And Naomi would share her gratitude for Ruth. Judaism teaches gratitude every day for every piece of life. On Shavuot we take time to feel gratitude for blessings of harvest and bounty. Think about the ancestors and relatives who taught us the power of saying ‘Thank you’ and seeing blessings all around us. At times of stress and difficulty, it is gratitude that provides perspective and helps us see what has always been there.

         Lesson 5: Adapt, adjust, evolve.  Ruth’s story is one of unexpected change.  Suddenly the woman from a country of enemies – Moab, is our greatest teacher.  (In the book of Deuteronomy, Moabites are so hated that Jews are prohibited from marrying them!) Ruth the Moabite (as the book refers to her) would tell us to rethink our assumptions and reflect on our harsh judgments.  The book ends with Ruth becoming the great grandmother of David – the great King from whom the Messiah will descend.  Talk about rethinking a narrative – the direct relative of the Great King is from the Moabites – the hated enemy!

Let’s always look with fresh eyes and hearts. During this virus we have had to look at deeper truths about our society and behavior that we may have been overlooking or rationalizing.  We are confronted with economic inequities, racial injustice and environmental truths that will require us to pivot and change.  Our historic legacy of ancestors and relatives who adapted to new realities, saw things differently and evolved as new circumstances emerged will inspire and inform us as we move forward.  So many of our ancestors and relatives knew we have to adapt in order to survive. Standing with them at Sinai and thinking of them at Shavuot allows us learn from their wisdom.

You were there! They are here! We have lessons of the past alive in our hearts and souls.  Our past is our promise.  Our history is our future. Our shared faith which has grown and changed over the generations is our inspiration.  Take a moment and allow that wisdom to speak to, and comfort us as we remember loved ones from our history and personal past. Let’s hear them whisper to us and allow their messages to strengthen, inspire us and help us find our true voices.