The Taste of Memory and Hope: Pesach Yizkor 5779 | Congregation Beth Am

The Taste of Memory and Hope: Pesach Yizkor 5779

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
April 26, 2019

By the seventh day of Passover, I've had a bellyful of matzah. I've eaten it in all kinds of forms this week: matzah balls and matzah brei, matzah kugel and matzah meal rolls, as well as a delicacy I only learned about when I got married: gabritte matzah, which consists of matzah pieces soaked in hot water, salted and eaten with scoops of cottage cheese. Shelly makes this for me every year, seeking the perfect al dente texture, occasionally altering the flavor with subtle additives he will not disclose. I’ve searched the Internet in vain for this recipe, or something like it. My husband says that he learned how to make it from his mother, Frances, and from her mother, his grandma Helene; and whenever he makes it, he thinks of them.

Passover is built on the nexus between food and memory. The crisp unseasoned flatbread we break speaks of poverty and the brokenness of the world; maror stings our eyes with tears, evoking the bitterness of bondage; the bite of fresh green parsley reminds us that it’s spring.

The link between food and remembrance is personal, as well. The taste of food in our mouth bypasses rational thought altogether, going straight to the storehouse of emotional memory. For me, one sip of Manischewitz Concord Grape, one bite of those chewy macaroons in a can, takes me instantly to the seders of my childhood.

All at once, I’m a seven year old, proud of my ability to read the Maxwell House Haggadah, puzzling over its very weird illustrations, giggling with my cousin Mark while my Grandpa, wearing his high white yarmulkeh at the head of the table, leads us in the prayers. I look around the long table at the faces of my family; for just a moment I can savor the heady fragrance of my Grandma’s chicken soup and knaidlech. And for just a moment I can see her loving smile and feel the touch of her hand on my cheek.

A poem by Edward Hirsch: it’s called “Special Orders.”

Give me back my father walking the halls

    of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company

        with sawdust clinging to his shoes.


Give me back his tape measure and his keys,

     his drafting pencil and his order forms;

          give me his daydreams on lined paper.


I don't understand this uncontainable grief.

     Whatever you had that never fit,

         whatever else you needed, believe me,


my father, who wanted your business,

     would squat down at your side

         and sketch you a container for it.

--from Special Orders (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Poetry, says Hirsch, “saves something precious in the world from vanishing” [from the introduction to Poet’s Choice, Mariner Books (2007). In this poem what he saves from vanishing is his own father, Kurt, who was a box cutter – a man who worked hard and assiduously, dedicated to his craft. “My father,” said Hirsch,  “always preferred ‘special orders’ to ‘standard orders.’ He enjoyed the practical problem of designing new boxes. More room for creativity, better fees.” [Interview with Hirsch:]

The poet brings his father sharply to mind by recalling the tools of his trade: his tape measure, his keys, his drafting pencil and his order forms, the sawdust clinging to his shoes. For his father, “special orders” was a business term; but for the son now bereft of the man who begot him, “special orders” becomes an anguished personal plea: “Give me back my father.”

This is the way we sometimes talk to God, or to the universe, when we’re all alone and the sadness seems like too much to bear: Give me back my dear mother. Give me back my Dad, strong and healthy as he used to be. Give me back my beloved husband, my wife, my precious friend. Give me back my child.

The poem ends in a moment of stark bewilderment and pain:

I don't understand this uncontainable grief.

     Whatever you had that never fit,

         whatever else you needed, believe me,


my father, who wanted your business,

     would squat down at your side

         and sketch you a container for it.


The poem doesn’t speak of comfort, for in the midst of piercing sadness for the one you love, comfort is not even on the horizon. It speaks instead of finding a container for grief, a way to hold emotion that feels overwhelming and unbearable. For Edward Hirsch, the poem itself is a container for uncontainable grief. It translates inarticulate pain into language, giving shape to the chaos within. To read his poem, or the words of others who have felt the ache of loss, is to feel a little less alone in our sadness. Others have been here, others have felt this, others have survived.

So too, the Yizkor service is a shared structure for mourning. It is the Jewish people’s container for uncontainable grief. The ancestral words and the music, the inherited traditions of this day hold all of us, as we are held, in our sadness, by the arms of those who love us. They cannot take away our pain, but they hold us up. Their embrace sustains us, gives us something solid to lean on, keeps us from falling into chaos.

 Our personal rituals become another sort of container for grief. Every year Shelly prepares gabritte matzah as a way of remembering and honoring the women whose loving hands once fed and cared for him. To follow the recipe is for him an act of homage; a way of keeping faith with the ones he has lost.

Slowly, painfully, each of us finds the structures that will help us carry our grief through time, keep our loved ones from vanishing, hold them sacred in our hearts. Gathering with our children to share their dad’s favorite meal on his birthday; wearing our mom’s scarf or jewelry; holding and cherishing an object our loved one touched; making a pilgrimage to a place we visited together, or to the grave – all these are rituals for containing the uncontainable, honoring and remembering; enacting, again and again, our faithfulness and love. 

The Torah reading for the seventh day of Pesach tells the story of the going out from Egypt -- the journey made by all of us who mourn, as we travel in our own way from the darkness and desolation of loss. On the third day of wandering in the wilderness, says our portion for today, the Israelites began to thirst, but they found no water. They came, then, to a place called in Hebrew Marah, bitterness. And there they found water, but the water was bitter, impossible to drink. So they cried out to Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" Moses turned to God and God showed him a piece of wood; Moses threw the wood into the water and the waters became sweet.

No doubt, modern commentators say, the wood contained certain chemical properties that neutralized the brackish water and made it drinkable. So it was chemistry, not magic, that made the waters sweet. But our Sages saw this story differently. The Israelites at first found no water in the wilderness, the Midrash says, not because the water wasn't there but because they simply couldn't see it, so consumed were they by worry and despair. And it wasn't the waters of Marah that were bitter, says the Midrash, but the Israelites themselves. "They felt bitter, and thus whatever they tasted was bitter to them" [Itture Torah; Exodus Rabbah 50:3].

When you come to Marah, the time of bitterness in your life, everything around you loses its savor -- food and drink and all that once brought pleasure now seem dry and tasteless and flat. But the story reminds us that the bitterness is within us, and not within the world. Even when we lose the person we love, the world remains a place of goodness and blessing and beauty, if only we can learn again to see.

Last year my cousin Mark, who was just my age, suddenly passed away. Last week was my grandma’s birthday, though she’s no longer here to celebrate it. Some years my sisters and I get together on that day to share some of the special dishes she used to make for us. We remember her smile, and how much we loved her.

I come to Yizkor to recapture, for a few moments, the seders of long ago, and to sit again within the circle of beloved faces I knew as a child. We are here to remember the ones we love, who -- despite our prayers and pleas and special orders to the universe -- will never come back to us again. But we come to Yizkor, all of us, to hear a story, as well -- a story of bitter waters made sweet, and the message that we, too, will someday drink again from the cup of joy.

"Every death leaves a scar," wrote Elie Wiesel, "but every time a child laughs, the scar begins to heal." So we gather on this Pesach morning, at the season of our people's liberation, to seek a liberation of our own -- from darkness and fear, from pain and deprivation, from anger and regret.

Pesach is the time for korech, for dipping and mixing the bitter with the sweet. Through salty tears we chew the fresh green taste of spring; we swallow maror in a mouthful of apples and sweet wine, tasting for ourselves the delicious promise of hope. So may our bitter grief in time find gentle healing -- in the laughter of a child, in the comforts and pleasures of this world; in the warm embrace of those who care for us; in new opportunities to love.

"For lo, the winter has passed. Flowers appear on earth; the time of singing has come" (Song of Songs 2:10-11). We are alive, and the world is blossoming around us, warm and fragrant and beautiful. So may our hearts begin again to blossom; so may we awaken to the spring.




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