Why do we light a Yizkor Candle?
Yizkor Derasha, Pesach 5758
It has only been about two weeks since we were shocked to find out about the tragic deaths of Rabbi Jake and Debbie Rubinstein of Scarsdale New York. One particularly horrific aspect of this tragedy is the cause of death. They died through fire. There was no illness, no period of waiting to allow them to in some sense come to terms with their deaths. There was just a sudden, unexpected, overwhelming, overpowering and utterly destructive fire.
What strikes me on this Yizkor morning two weeks later, the first Yizkor after their deaths as their family and community are just going through the initial stages of grieving is the way in which we will memorialize them and all of our departed loved ones. Besides reciting Yizkor, we do one act. Most of us did it last night as Yom Tov came in. We light a candle, a little fire. Most of us have candles lit at home and if look in the back of the sanctuary you will see hundreds of little electric candles that were lit by our lamplighters in memory of Beth Sholom members who are no longer with us. And my question this morning is very simple; Why? Why do we take the fire, which can be and was so destructive just two weeks ago and has killed so many jews throughout the ages; Why do we take the destructive force and use it to memorialize our loved ones?
In order to answer this question, I think we need to take a step back and understand the significance of fire in the Torah.In the Torah, Fire is present at almost every important communication between God and the Jewish People. At the brit bein habetarim, God is represented by a לפיד אש – a flaming torch which blazed through animals that Avraham had cut in two. And how does God first appear to Moshe? At a bush set on fire. At the revelation at Sinai, the mountain is said to be full of smoke because God descended upon it in Fire. Finally, God leads Israel through the desert for 40 years with an עמוד אש a pillar of fire.
So if it is true that Fire is present at almost every important moment in Jewish History, then why is it missing during the most holy day of the week. We all know that there are 39 categories of prohibited work on shabbat. But the only prohibition that is explicitly mentioned in the Torah is לא תבערו אש בכל משבתיכם ביום השבת – Do not light a fire in all of your dwelling places on shabbat. Shabbat is sandwiched between fire. We light a fire right before shabbat with the Shabbat candles and we light a fire right after shabbat (Havdalah).But on shabbat itself there is no fire. If fire is so holy and Shabbat is the holiest time, then the absence of fire on Shabbat is glaring.
Perhaps we can offer the following thought which will help explain the nature of fire and Shabbat. Everyone knows that without Fire, there is no civilization. Fire is necessary for light, for cooking, for fuel, for building. Fire is therefore understood as the symbol of creativity and ingenuity. This is the reason that at almost every important moment in the Jewish people’s historical relationship with God, fire is present. When God appears to Abraham, he is asking Abraham to be the builder of a new nation. It is about holy building, fire is therefore present. At Har Sinai, the Jewish People are given the Torah. The Torah is meant to be used as a blueprint for the jewish people to create a state and build a home in the land of Israel. It is all about holy creating, fire is therefore present. But then it comes to shabbat and the point of shabbat is to stop creating. To turn inward, to catch our spiritual breath and gain an inner balance. Fire is therefore absent on shabbat.
There is a very important idea in Judaism which I think is applicable to our understanding of fire. Judaism teaches us that anything that has tremendous power for good (כח לטוב), also has potential to be very bad, very destructive (כח לרע). That is why the same fire which creates, which provides food, which builds, also has the power to destroy. The same power which brings so much joy also brings pain and suffering. Fire is either really good or really bad. It is never pareve, never neutral.
To some extent, the same can be said of relationships with parents and close relatives. I never heard of someone who had a pareve relationship with their parents. I never heard someone say, “My parents, they are alright. It is ok to spend time with them, nothing special, but it is alright. At times, you are so drawn to your parents like a candle which provides light and warmth. But at other times, the relationship might be difficult and then it is like a fire which is overwhelming and overpowering; you need to be away.
Perhaps that is why we light a yizkor candle. The fire is contained but it has a bright glow. The candle represents the neshama of a person because fire represents the life force, the creativity. And now during yizkor we remember the loved one during those times when their light was a guide providing warmth and comfort.
I would like to conclude with a fascinating halakhic dispute concerning the lighting of the Yizkor candle and it has to do with when and how you light the candle. When did you light the yizkor candle? Most of us probably lit the candle last night right after we lit the Yom Tov candles. The problem is that there is actually a halakhic problem with lighting the yizkor candle. This is because even though it is permitted to kindle a light on Yom Tov (from an existing flame), it is only permitted if we need the fire for cooking, for warmth or for light. But if just light it for the sake of lighting a candle, it is called a נר של בטלה a light that serves no purpose and it is forbidden to light this kind of candle on Yom Tov, even from an existing flame. Therefore the question about whether one may light a yizkor candle on Yom Tov was raised in the beginning of the 19th century and it was actually the subject of a debate.
Rabbi Meir Eisenshtat was asked whether or not a yizkor candle may be lit and he said that it is forbidden. Ironically, the name of the book that records this prohibition of kindling the Yizkor candle on Yom Tov is called אמרי אש which means The Sayings of Fire. So the Imrei Eish would have told all of us last night that we should not light our yizkor candles.
But then a few years later in the middle of the 19th century, Rabbi Abraham Sofer, the son of the famous Chatam Sofer was asked the same question. And I think that he understood the spiritual and emotional need of children to light the Yizkor candle for their parents. But he also knew the law. And the law said that if a candle was not going to be used to enhance the simcha of Yom Tov that it could not be kindled on Yom Tov even if it was for a memorial. He therefore he came up with the following compromise. He said that the Yizkor candle could be kindled on Yom Tov. But that it needs to be placed on the table where people would eat or read and thereby use the candle to enhance the simcha of Yom Tov. I think that some of us might be taken aback by Rabbi Abraham Sofer’s suggestion. We should use the Yizkor candle? Doesn’t it represent the soul of our departed loved ones? Isn’t it holy?
But I think the suggestion is beautiful. It teaches us that we need to take the light which represents the soul, the life and creative force of our parents and grandparents and use it to provide light in our own lives.
In this vein, I would like to offer a possible ritual that we can adopt which will not only make our lighting of the Yizkor candle conform with halakha, it will also provide a powerful ritual in the spirit of Yizkor. This afternoon, take a few minutes and open up a Jewish text or a book that your parents or grandparents thought was very important. Maybe a parsha from chumash, the shema or a favorite Psalm or Prayer, maybe a mishna from Avot or even something from secular literature. Sit down next to the yizkor light and use the flame that represents their neshama and learn the text. And as your learning, imagine that they are there with you and learning with you BeChavruta – in partnership. What kinds of questions would they ask about the text? What kinds of insights would they derive from the text and take this as an opportunity to allow their light to still shine in the world and to help guide you in your life today.
My berakha to us all on this Yizkor morning is that the lessons that we have learned and continue to learn from our parents and grandparents be passed down to our children, grandchildren and all of the Jewish people for many generations to come. And if that happens, the light of their souls will always burn. Chag Sameach.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
The "Mah Nishtana" is always an enjoyable part of the seder because it is often recited by our young children. In this class we will examine the "ma nishtana" and come to realize that many of us are really missing the point in forcing our children to memorize "the four questions."
To listen to the class, click here
To download the source sheet, click here
To listen to the class, click here
To download the source sheet, click here