Last Sunday I co-officiated with our congregation's wonderful cantor at the community's annual kever avot service. "Kever avot" means "burial place of ancestors," and the service is an opportunity for people to visit the cemetery during the Days of Awe, to pay respects to relatives who are buried there, or just to remember those who have died no matter where their remains may lie.
Yom Kippur, which begins tonight at sunset, is the one day of the year we set aside for focussing on that truth for 24 straight hours. It is not easy. We have minds that habitually seek to think about just about anything else. We spend our lives distracted by the necessities of getting through the day, harboring opinions and pursuing personal preferences and desires. We seldom find the time to turn our thoughts to the great truths: we are temporary and we owe our entire lives to a source beyond ourselves.
After the formal part of Sunday's kever avot service, I watched people wander around the cemetery grounds, finding names of loved ones, old friends, and other reminders of memories that have faded but not disappeared. I watched as one person sat on the ground to get closer. People came up to me to ask a question about the cemetery, to share a story about their beloved, to whisper a name. They remembered.
In the first act of Hamlet, the prince is called to these difficult thoughts by a visit from his father's ghost. Shakespeare gets it just right when he has Hamlet say:
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
(Hamlet, Act I, Scene V)
Yom Kippur is our day for wiping away the trivial and focusing on what really matters, unmixed with baser matter. As we stand before the open ark and ask God to answer us and to be gracious to us, despite our meager deeds, we remember who we really are. We put our lives into perspective and confront some deep truths.
Our lives are small, the universe is vast. While we are here, the task is ours to do the best we can. Still, we can reach beyond our temporary selves by remembering, and making ourselves worthy of memory.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Bo: Hitting Rock Bottom
Steve Jobs and Yom Kippur