Shavuot Yizkor Service 2017 | 5777
His father once called him: “the miracle which God let be born in Salzburg” – and indeed, his middle name suggests that he was a rare and remarkable soul: in German, Gottlieb; in Latin, Amadeus, beloved of God. One of seven children, only he and his older sister, Maria Anna, called Nannerl, survived infancy. When Nannerl was seven her father began giving her harpsichord lessons. Little brother Wolfgang, three years old, climbed up to the keyboard and began picking out thirds and playing chords. By four he was playing short pieces; by five he was composing. He was discovered to have perfect pitch. He could hear a concerto and write it down from memory. He was a fair-haired little boy, frail and small for his age, gentle in temperament; according to family lore he was frightened by the sound of the trumpet.
He grew into a man undistinguished in appearance – short, slight, and pale, with a face pitted from smallpox; yet popular with the ladies, who were captivated by his large, intense blue-gray eyes. He was dreamy and absent-minded, regarded by some as eccentric, but convivial and fond of company. He enjoyed billiards and dancing, kept several pets, loved elegant clothing, spoke in a soft tenor voice, worked long hours, and always at a feverish pace.
Musical genius and success as a pianist and composer did not translate into financial prosperity. In his thirties Mozart’s creative output slowed; he performed less frequently in public and his income declined. He may have suffered from depression or bipolar disorder; he wrote that he was tormented by “black thoughts.” There were tensions at home; he and Constanze lived far beyond their means. Mozart began borrowing money, begging his friends for loans, and made long journeys all over Germany, hoping to improve the family fortunes, but without success.
After a long dark period, 1791 promised to be a better year. Mozart composed a great many works, reeling off several dances, a piano concerto, a clarinet concerto, two string quintets and his beloved opera “The Magic Flute.” His financial situation began to improve. In July Constanze gave birth to their sixth child, one of two who would survive childhood. The next month Mozart traveled to Prague, where he was ill for several weeks, but the opera premiered to great success.
By October he was back in Vienna, in good spirits and optimistic about the future. He set to work on a new piece – a Requiem commissioned by Count von Walsegg to mark the recent death of his wife. Along the way he wrote a new cantata and directed a performance of it on November 18. A few days later he fell ill and was confined to bed; a slight improvement in early December was not sustained. In the early hours of December 5, 1791, he died at the age of 35; his somber, magnificent Requiem unfinished.
The Requiem – a Catholic mass for the souls of the dead – gets its name from the first word of the Latin liturgy: Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine .... -- "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them." The word “requiem” means “repose, or rest after labor”; it’s related to the modern English word “quiet.”
We Jews, of course, also pray for the rest and repose of the dead. The El Malei Rachamim, said at the funeral, on the yahrzeit and when visiting a grave, asks God: “Hamtzei menucha nechona – Grant perfect rest to the souls of our dear ones who have gone into eternity”; and it ends: “Adonai hu nachalatam, v’yanuchu b’shalom….May they find a home in God, and may they rest in peace…”
Each time we mention the name of one who has died, tradition bids us add the phrase “alav ha-shalom, aleha ha-shalom – peace be with him, peace be with her.” And the Yizkor prayer given to us on this day echoes the words of the Catholic Requiem mass: “May God remember the soul of my beloved….who has gone to his eternal home…..May he be at one with the One who is life eternal, and may the beauty of his life shine forevermore.”
Our prayers of memory center on the rest and peace of those who have died. We envision their souls drawn back to the Source of all life, relieved of suffering, released from fear. We pray that lives shadowed by the darkness of depression, dementia, disability or pain now bathe in a gentle, healing light, to shine forever in memory. The ones we love have come home at last; nothing can hurt them again.
Our prayers seek this quiet repose for the dead; indeed, when the prayers were composed their focus was the restless, tormented souls of the departed – fearful of judgment and punishment, yearning for God’s merciful love and an entrance to Paradise. While Jewish tradition never imagined eternal damnation for the dead, it did teach that the prayers of the living could elevate the souls of the dead and help them reach the beauty of Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden.
In our own time, we may read these prayers differently, aware that it is not the dead who need to find peace, but we who live on and grieve for the ones we will never see and hear and touch again. We are the restless, unquiet souls, yearning and aching for what we can’t have; brought to sudden tears by the pain of missing them so much. Again and again we bump up against the sheer shock of it: we loved them; we needed them; how can they not be here?
We mourn for lives cut short with the work unfinished; we mourn even for those who died in the fullness of age, because when you love someone, there is never enough time to be together, and the world is never the same without them.
How do the living find menucha nechona – a sense of rest and peace – when the ones we cherish are no longer in this world?
Today’s service, the Yizkor service, is called in Jewish tradition “Seder matnat yad – the service of expressing generosity,” or more literally, “the service of gifts.” This name comes from a phrase in the Torah reading for the three pilgrimage festivals – Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot – when Yizkor is recited. Here is the passage from Deuteronomy: “Three times a year – on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths – all your males shall appear before the Eternal your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before God empty handed, but each with his own gift (ish b’matnat yado), according to the blessing that God has bestowed upon you” (Deut.16:17).
In ancient Israel the festivals were to be celebrated by coming together with others; above all, they were to be marked by acts of generosity -- Ish b’matnat yado – each person bringing his or her own gift, offered in gratitude for the blessings bestowed by the great Giver of life. We still honor the teaching of Deuteronomy by giving tzedaka on the festivals and by sharing our celebrations with neighbors and friends, especially those who are liable to be alone on the holidays.
Yizkor, the service of remembrance, is a celebration of generosity – a time to give thanks for the gifts we have received, to discern the blessings bestowed by the lives we have lost. For gratitude in all its forms is a path to peace; gratitude dissolves bitterness, eases pain, opens the heart, calls forth love.
Wolfgang Amadeus, a gentle young man beloved of God, died in the prime of creative life, his potential unfulfilled, his work left unfinished. But the miracle born in Salzburg still continues to astound, and all the world gives thanks for the extraordinary cascade of music he gave us while he lived. What is true of genius is true of us all. Every life leaves its distinctive mark upon the world and makes its own extraordinary music. No man or woman or child comes empty-handed; each rare and remarkable soul brings precious gifts in their time upon this earth.
We will hurt less; we will elevate our soul and find our way to peace, if we can find the strength to be grateful. The Yizkor service – the service of expressing generosity – summons us to be generous in our thoughts, magnanimous in our memories; to seek out and treasure all the good that we’ve received from the ones who now are gone.
Yizkor calls us, as well, to realize that we do not come to this place empty-handed. Each of us still has gifts to offer this world – our own particular offerings that only we can bring: gifts of intellect and creativity yet unexpressed; gifts of courage and resilience, of kindness and friendship, of love and tenderness to share with the ones who need us.
“Lo amut, ki echyeh,” says the psalm we recite on this festival day. “I have not died; I will live on to speak words of praise” [Ps.118:17]. That is the consummate message of Yizkor: we have lost someone we love, but we are still alive. Still alive to greet this green and flowering spring; to open our eyes to beauty; to offer ourselves to life and to receive what life offers to us.
by Abigail Gramig Trowbridge
Drops of water
of Russian sage
on crossed paws
of locust tree
just like this
you would have said
-- from Dusting the Piano. © Finishing Line Press, 2004
Even now, the world continues to shower us with gifts; rare and remarkable, worthy of thanks and praise. Here we are, to greet this perfect day – iridescent blue sky with its fast-moving clouds, the light through the trees, drops of water on the leaves, the dog with her chin perched on her paws. What would the dead say to us now, if they could speak? Everything is perfect / just like this – and you are alive.
Holy One, great Giver of life: Grant perfect rest to our dear ones who have gone into eternity. Released from pain, may they find a home in Your infinite light. And may we, the living, find peace in the work that is ours to do. May we grow from grief to gratitude. May we open our hearts to life and savor the light of this beautiful world. “Zeh ha-yom asah Adonai -- this is the day that God has made. Nagila v’nishm’cha vo – let us rejoice and be glad in it” [Ps.118:24].