Shabbat Parshat Haazinu, 5760
Aspects of "Yizkor" - Echoes in HaazinuAnother name for Yom Kippur is "Yom HaKippurim," the Day of Atonements. This is understood to mean that there are two atonements which take place on the holiest day of the year: atonement for the living and atonement for the dead. This is in turn based on the verse, "Atone for your People, Israel, which You have redeemed" (Devarim 21:8). And the verse is split - "Atone for Your People, Israel" refers to atonement for the living and "which you have redeemed" refers to atonement for the dead.
This is the basis of "Yizkor," the prayer in which we ask the Almighty to elevate the level of our departed loved ones, and the process in which we make donations to "Tzedakah," charity, and ask Hashem to credit the donations to the "accounts," so to speak, of our loved ones. This will help as well, as we know from the verse "And Tzedakah saves from death."
"Yizkor," then, is assumes the fundamental beliefs of Judaism in the eternity of the soul, and the equally fundamental belief that the Creator conducts the world based on the principle of Reward and Punishment, "Midah Kneged Midah," or "Measure for Measure." Although, in His Mercy, he allows our good deeds to count for more than the bad, or at least that their beneficial effect lasts five hundred times longer than the deleterious effect of ones bad deeds. And He always leaves us the option of "Teshuvah," Repentance, or Return to Him, even at the very last moment of our lives.
A footnote in "Mourning in Halachah," by Rabbi Chaim Binyamin Goldberg, cites a fascinating Midrash, which speaks about a soul which has unfortunately found itself, due to the misdeeds of its "owner," in "Gehinnom," the Jewish equivalent of "Hell." The Midrash says , "One might think that once a person goes down to "Gehinnom," nothing can be done for him. But [the truth is that] when people pray for mercy for him, he is thrown out of "Gehinnom" like an arrow shot from a bow." (Tanchuma, beginning of Parshat Haazinu)
There is an interesting difference in custom between the Ashkenazic and the Sefardic Communities in their respective recitations of the "Yizkor" Prayer. The Ashkenazim refer to the deceased by his or her name, son or daughter of the father. The Sefardim, on the other hand, refer to the deceased by his or her name, son or daughter of the mother.
A possible explanation is that the Ashkenazic perspective of what we are asking for is analogous to an "Aliyah," the word used for being called up to recite a blessing on the Torah, or to go up to live in the Land of Israel. In the case of an "Aliyah" to the Torah, the individual is called up as the son of the father. Thus, in reciting the "Yizkor" Prayer, we are asking for "atonement" in the sense of an "ascent" in level of holiness, or closeness to Hashem, which is basically how Judaism defines the meaning of "Reward."
Whereas the Sefardic perspective is that "atonement" for the soul is a form of healing from the sickness of sin. This is how we pray for someone who is very sick - by referencing the person by his or her name, and the name of his or her mother. Interestingly, this fits nicely with the description by the RAMBAM, the great Torah scholar, who was a quintessential Sefardi, who described the sinner as one who is rejected by and an abomination to G-d, but who is healed and brought near by "Teshuvah," Repentance, and "Kapparah," Atonement.
In Parshat Haazinu, which we read this week, and is often read on "Shabbat Shuvah," the Sabbath of Repentance, there are references to the eternity of the Jewish People, whereby we are supposed to live, as finite beings, in the Present, with our national consciousness focused on the Past as well as on the Future. When Moshe says, "Zechor Yemot Olam," "Remember the days of old," (Devarim 32:7), he is saying, according to RASHI, the great Ashkenazic Commentator, that they should remember the past, when they failed to listen to Hashem.
But it was in Parshat Nitzavim that Moshe also bound all future generations of the Jewish People to the Covenant of Sinai, that exalted moment in our past when we accepted the Torah. Now Moshe calls upon us again, further along in the verse (Devarim 32:7) with the words "binu shenot dor vador," "Understand the years of the generations to come." These words are interpreted by RASHI to mean that we are engaged in a relationship with the One Who commands the future, and has the power to reward us, by hastening the arrival of the Mashiach and giving us a share in the "World-to-Come."
And in the last verse in "Shirat Haazinu," the great "Song of Moshe" in which he calls heaven and earth as witnesses, Moshe speaks of the ultimate "atonement" in store for the Jewish People, "O nations, sing the praises of His People, for He will avenge the blood of His servants; He will bring retribution upon His foes, and will atone for His Land and His People" (Devarim 32:43).
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU