There is a story told about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. He would pray for many hours every day. His disciples, who had long concluded their own prayers, would form a circle around him to listen to the melody of his prayers and feast their eyes on the spectacle of a soul soaring in meditative attachment to its Maker. It was an unspoken rule among them that no one would leave until the Baal Shem Tov concluded his prayers.
One day, a great fatigue and hunger befell them. One by one, they slipped home for a bite and a few moments rest, certain that their rebbe’s prayers would continue for several hours more. But when they returned, they found that he had finished praying while they were gone.
They asked him, "Why did you conclude your prayers so early today?"
The Baal Shem Tov answered them with a parable: Once, a group of people were journeying through a forest. Their leader, who was blessed with a keen eyesight, spotted a beautiful bird perched atop a very tall tree.
"Help me," he said to his companions, "I wish to capture this beautiful bird, so that we may delight in her song and gaze upon her wondrous colors."
"But how can you reach the bird," they asked, "when it is at the top of such a tall tree?
"If you each climb up onto the shoulders of your fellow," their leader explained, "I will climb on to the shoulders of the topmost person and will be able to catch the wondrous bird."
And so they did. Together, they formed a ladder reaching from the earth toward the heavens, to raise their leader to his aspired goal. But they soon wearied of the exercise and went off to eat and rest, and the man who had sighted the bird, tumbled to the ground.
At this moment of yizkor, we are here to mark the passing of those who were dear to us. People we loved, people who raised us, people with whom we had conflicted relations and for some, people we hated. We mourn their death and our loss.
Since our birth, we have had companions on our life’s journey. There were people who raised us. As we grew, there were people who taught us in the classroom. More importantly there were people who taught us what it was to be a good human being. How to find the best in ourselves, to be a good person. Mostly that was by example, by being someone we wanted to emulate. But no one is perfect and we learned also by seeing what we did not want to repeat. In some cases that was the rule rather than the exception. In each of our lives we have had people who in their best moments, enabled us to see the beauty, the scintillating colors of their lives, the melody of how they lived and it made us want to rise up and be our best. They helped us see the wonder in ourselves and awakened in us a desire to transcend our normal selves and be more. They encouraged us to aspire to be our best.
When they died, the ladder of our love for them and their love for us, collapsed. We fell and at times, are still falling, in those moments when the pain of their absence hits us. But laying on the ground, we can still look up and glimpse the sky through the leaves and see the glorious bird or hear its song replay in our memory. And if we listen carefully, if we can open ourselves to the memory of who they were and how we felt, when we can lean on the people we care about that still surround us, we can rebuild that ladder and climb up out of the dark hole in which we have fallen.
We are each of us a leader with companions who share with us parts of the journey of our lives. Our parents, partners, siblings, children, are the people tradition expects us to mourn. Those of us who were hurt, abused or abandoned, will wrestle with that demand, that feeling for much of our lives. In the passing of those who hurt us, we may mourn that chance for closure, the loss of what might have been that never was, what we never had. For those of us who were blessed with love, we mourn the ones we loved, who loved us and are now gone. Friend, family, people who were both, acquaintances that touched out lives. Yizkor, we remember, all those who inspired us to see more color in our world, to hear the music of life or moved us to ask ourselves how to build a ladder to reach higher.
It is for them, for ourselves, we remember, read names and in a moment will say the kaddish.