Yom Kippur 5783 – May Their Memory be a Blessing

By: Alan Bach

With the high death rate attributed to Covid over the past couple of years, the war in Ukraine, and the passing of Queen Elizabeth last month, we have been inundated with death. Many within our community lost loved ones during this time, and the world has faced astronomical levels of death.  1.06 million people have died in the US and 6.55 million people have died worldwide from Covid. While the magnitude of these numbers is unimaginable, it feels as if we are getting numb and complacent to death. So, you must be thinking this is going to be an upbeat few minutes.

It became a popular tradition during the peak times of Covid for news anchors to read a list of names each day of a few people who lost their lives to Covid. Some of the Jewish anchors would end the reading of their list with, “may their memory be a blessing”, a common expression that we Jews use to offer condolences. I have always struggled with what exactly does, “may their memory be a blessing” mean.

The phrase is derived from the popular acronym that we use following the name of the deceased. The Hebrew letters zayin, lamed are commonly seen as z”l following a name representing  זכרונו/ה לברכה  (Zikrono Livrakha) which means of blessed memory or may his/her memory be a blessing. I remember my father would always use the term, “Alav Ha-Shalom” , may peace be upon him/her, following the mention of a deceased loved-one.

My previous understanding of “may his/her memory be a blessing” was it had a similar meaning to the term, RIP – Rest in Peace. I decided to research the derivation of זכרונו/ה לברכה  (Zikrono Livrakha) to better understand why, we as Jews use this phrase.

My favorite interpretation of the phrase, “may their memory be a blessing” is to understand, to appreciate and to benefit in your life from the good blessings that the departed created while on earth. The tzedakah one provided to individuals and to the community, the teachings that a parent provided to their children, the positive influences that were left behind, and all the other good deeds should continue even though they are no longer with us on Earth. When we say, “may their memory be a blessing”, what we are wishing is that you, the community and maybe even the world will benefit from their presence in our lives now and in the future.

For those of you that were here this past Shabbat, Joel spoke about his goal to focus on increasing the number of good deeds he performs. He mentioned in parasha Lech Lecha G-d says to Abraham, “You will be a blessing”.   It struck me at that moment there is a tie-in to the mention of blessings here to the use of the phrase, “may his/her memory be a blessing”. Thank you Joel, for helping to set this straight in my mind.

The Torah is constantly juxtaposing blessings and curses. Blessings reflect G-d’s approval and require that we create life, that we treat others with kindness and that we live in peace. Curses represent dealing with the bad and the personal struggles we face in life to do good. In Lech Lacha, G-d says to Abraham, “You will be a blessing. Be a blessing and I will bless those that bless you”.  We should make the best of what we have and strive to do better to help others by focusing on the acts of kindness. But with 24/7 news, phone alerts, social media, email, etc. it becomes too easy to only see the negative.  Our focus today on asking for forgiveness and recalling how we have wronged others may cause us to lose focus with all the good we have done in the past year. Tomorrow is more important than today, because tomorrow 100% of our attention should be on blessings, on doing good deeds in the new year ahead.

It is a natural emotion to be sad as we approach the Yizkor service because we miss our loved ones. We remember the time we spent with a parent, with a sibling, with a child or with other loved ones, and realize we will never be able to physically be with them again. Focus on the memories of the blessings they left behind. I recall the numerous organizations my father served on the board for, his love for the synagogue, the money and time he contributed to tzedakah, how he always treated others kindly and fairly, and the lessons he taught me that I have tried to pass on to my family. These are the blessings that will continue to live – hopefully for generations to come. Use this time to recall the blessings that your loved ones imparted for future generations. And hopefully their blessings have become a role model for you to create blessings and for you to perform acts of loving kindness for the benefit of your family, for our community and for the world.

May their memory be a blessing.

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