Yizkor – Empty Seats Revisited

The room fills up with memories and precious stories

A moving custom at CBJ on many Shabbats is that those who have Yahrtzeit – the anniversary of the death of loved ones – are offered the opportunity to share memories of loved ones. Those of you who have been here know they are very holy moments.  We often learn extraordinary stories and characteristics and emerge thinking about how we might want to incorporate aspects of that person into our lives.  We also learn a lot about the person telling the story.

A few weeks ago, a congregant told about how her father would bring her to synagogue as she was growing up.  Memories of sitting together with him at Shabbat services are a piece of what she holds onto.  You could feel the longing and sadness, as she painted the picture of the two of them sitting together.  You felt how she creates meaning and purpose around the memory by saying Kaddish and sharing his story. Yizkor is a moment where we all collectively gather our memories and stories.  We feel the emotions of loss, reflect on impact of our loved one and think about how we might honor their memory through our actions.

The description of sitting by her dad during services and now knowing that his seat is empty struck me.  It reminded me of a sermon that I delivered my very first year at CBJ – Congregation Beth Jacob – which then we called TBJ – Temple Beth Jacob- but that’s another story.  Back then it was not so easy to find sermons online like we can now.  Many of us would photocopy sermons and circulate them to friends.  Several years before I got to Beth Jacob, when I was at Temple Emanuel in Newton, a friend sent a copy of a sermon by Rabbi Susan Shnur written in 1987 in the Philadelphia Exponent.  I wrote on it – “for 1st Yizkor sermon when I am at my own synagogue” and that was when I shared it with you – September 4, 1995.  The sermon was titled Empty Seats, and Rabbi Schnur talks about the seats of those who were no longer living in the synagogue of her youth. She wrote: “My Nana and her husband Simon sat over against the wall, on the left.  My parents sat behind them in aisle seats, then my aunt and uncle.  She describes with beautiful detail the people of Adath Israel and the stories of empty seats. Every seat is a story, a precious memory, pieces that we hold onto that shaped us. About her Nana, she wrote: “Nana, the way you kept your husband’s seat for 37 years, the way you kept him next to you in shul – that is how I will keep your seat in my heart.”  That is Yizkor – imagining the empty seats; feeling the presence that we miss, the absence that is real. The image lifts up stories and stories help us access emotion and meaning.

I was pulled to the theme for my first Yizkor sermon here, because I knew that I didn’t know the stories of the empty seats at Beth Jacob, or the empty seats of the people in the congregants lives I was just meeting.  I wanted to hear those stories and to learn about the people you were missing and the people of this community as we began to build holy relationships between rabbi and congregant. And as people join the synagogue, I want to know all of your stories as well and create more space where those stories are shared.

As I sat with the image of the congregant sitting with her father and remembered that first sermon, I realized there is more to the metaphor this year. I literally am standing in front of a room full of empty seats.  Thank God you are alive and will return to fill these seats up – but the image of the empty seat lifts up the emotions of missing you. yearning for presence and connection.  And the metaphor struck me on another level.  There have been so much loss these past months – the enormity of which is unfathomable.  To think that there are over 205,000 empty seats that will not be filled – each seat a story, a past, a future that no longer is – fills me with sadness.  I have learned that sadness must be named and felt – that is a piece of Yizkor.  For sadness is real and being together for Yizkor gives a place to hold that sadness so it doesn’t remain bottled up and emerge in other ways.  Let’s name the pain in the empty seats we are experiencing.

Let your mind think about the empty seats – both the seats here at CBJ and other places in your lives and our worlds. The metaphor of a seat makes each memory a distinct story.  While holding onto the emotions of sadness, let your mind begin to tell the stories.  Picture the family members and friends who would sit around the table and share special moments.  Let your hearts connect with memories and stories. Those stories define and sustain.  Revisiting them lets your loved ones be with you. As we access these memories – we draw strength and inspiration.  We are given permission to mourn their absence – and for some reflect on pain or regret.

As I look around this room and the stories come flooding to me. There is where Jack sat – always with a book to read during musaf, a thoughtful comment about the sermon or the teaching accompanied by a smile and a laugh.  There is where Cantor Cohn sat after he retired – my heart fills with memories of how music, love, teaching and connection helped him overcome great adversity.  Ruth sat over there – an extraordinary educator who loved God with all her soul and made sure that every single person who walked through these doors received care and love.  Each chair has its stories. And as I hear the stories of congregants I didn’t know, or your relatives and friends – the room fills up with memories and precious stories.

Not only do I want you to hold onto the stories – I want you to share them – especially with family.  There is more to stories than just our memories, emotions and lessons – there are broader implications.  Memory and stories play a key role in getting through difficult times.  In an article written several years ago, Bruce Feiler taught that knowing family narrative gives us resilience.

He shared research that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem. How is that?  According to his article, as we tell the real, honest stories of those who sat in the empty seats – the highs and lows, the ups and downs – we remember that life is full of triumph and tragedy, success and failure. Knowing that gives us resilience and the ability to deal with change, learn new things and preserve our sanity in unfamiliar situations.

It is the value of knowing Jewish history and story – our people overcome tough times – learned from them and leave us the legacy that we too can overcome and learn. In a commentary written on the Hagaddah for the American Jewish World Service – Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote about the heroic women of the Exodus.  She writes: “the stories we tell our children shape what they believe to be possible — which is why at Passover, we must tell the stories of the women who played a crucial role in the Exodus narrative.”  This story teaches “that with vision and action we can join hands with others of like mind, kindling lights along paths leading out of the terrifying darkness.”  The stories of our past, fill our hearts and give us resilience.

Dig deeper into the stories of those empty seats. As you let memories and stories fill your heart, you might even discover pieces of yourself you never understood before.  Rabbi Schnur shared that when she was a rabbinical student, people always used to ask her and other students why they wanted to be a rabbi.  She writes: “None of our answers were very good…. [Then] one day in class, I happened to mention that, as a child, I had always loved going to synagogue with my grandfather every Shabbat and afterward we would walk to his house. I would beg him to play Cassino with and then we would take a nap.”  Other students chimed in with their memories of going to synagogue with their grandparents.  That’s part of why they became rabbis.

I don’t have memories of going to services with grandparents– although going to Friday night services with my mom, followed by a trip to Dairy Queen is certainly a happy memory.  I do know that much of who I am is from people both alive, and some no longer with us whose impact ripples to this day. It is the stories of those who occupied the empty seats that shaped us and define our essence.

Think about the memories of those empty seats. Who do you recall? How did they influence you?  What are you carrying from them? I look out at these seats and know that the people who sat in them, as well as in other seats now empty have shaped who I am.  And I know that as we will fill these seats in days to come and that as we share more stories, all of those shared memories will give us strength, courage and a sense of self that will allow us to find meaning even in the face of the emptiness.