Yizkor balances joy of Pesach

By Rabbi Amy Feder

Pesach is one of our most joyous festivals and, for many of us, a definite favorite. It can feel odd, then, to conclude the holiday with Yizkor, the memorial service. Yet the pairing of celebration and mourning is central to Judaism and seems perhaps more fitting on Pesach than on any other day of the Jewish year.  

The story of Pesach and the exodus from Egypt is filled with contrasting moments. The joyful escape of the Israelites from Egypt is possible only after countless deaths on both sides. The plagues that forced Pharaoh to free the Israelites are remembered with glee and with sorrow: glee for those escaped and sorrow for those innocents who perished.  

We know this story well, remembering as we read the Haggadah that the generations who fled into the freedom of the desert died before ever reaching the promised land.  It was they who must first have dreamed of next year in Jerusalem, and their failure makes our own communal wish so much more terribly poignant.

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The contrasts of this holiday are not only in the exodus story, but also in our homes. On Pesach, we may put an extra leaf in the dining room table, opening our doors to guests and family in eager hospitality. Yet it is also on this holiday that each of us looks around the table and remembers those who once sat in now empty seats.  

It isn’t just Elijah whose extra place we almost unconsciously set, knowing full well that nobody will sit in that one particular chair, that only a slight of hand will make the wine in its ornate cup disappear. Last year, I watched my grandfather sit with a tired, confused fragility at his usual spot at the table, unable to take his turn as we read through the Haggadah.  Each member of my family knew then that it would be the last Pesach we would all spend with him, but that did not make the prospect of celebrating the holiday this year without him any easier.

Absences, in the Pesach setting, take on a tangibility, a weight that fills the empty seats till the room seems full of those who no longer sit with us. This weight, though, does not hold us down. As Milan Kundera described in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” it is this weight that keeps us afloat, defying the very laws of nature. We look around the seder table, and the memory of those who are gone weighs upon us, not as a burden but as a means with which to give our lives depth and meaning. It is the weight of obligation, of connection and of memory that sustains us.

Pesach, though it is a joyous festival, does not allow us to escape into lightness. On Pesach, we carefully avoid chametz, anything with yeast that would fill us with air. No one is puffed up, light and fluffy like Wonder Bread, but rather we are like the dry, heavy flatness of matzah that sticks in our guts and holds us down. Here we sit, weighed down with seven days worth of the bread of affliction in our bellies.

Discomfort aside, it is an almost pleasurable heaviness, another reminder of the heavy yoke that we Jews willingly wear.

In this hour of the Pesach Yizkor service, we remember those whose substantial presence brought our lives meaning. We look to them, strive to walk in their footsteps and make their imprints ever deeper by adding our own weight. Seven days ago, we felt their presence around our seder tables, and we feel them again tonight, gently pressing upon us to make our own marks in this world. 

In their honor, we yearn to experience the antithesis of Kundera’s unbearable lightness of being; we prefer to feel the satisfying weight of being the ones to carry on tradition. Our chosen burden is to ensure that those whom we have loved and lost will never be lightened in the eyes of the world and will always be remembered. May their memories be a blessing.