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Yizkor Shavuot - How the Future Contains the Past Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Book of Ruth, which is customarily read on Shavuot, begins as a tragedy. In the first several verses, we find Naomi suffering famine,  forced to leave her beloved home. This is followed by the loss of her husband and two sons, one right after the other.  8 verses into the book, there she is without bread, without  home, without  husband, without children.

Ruth enters the story as a force for Tikkun, for repair. She accompanies Naomi back to her home to Bethlehem, she gleans in the fields to bring her bread, and ultimately through her own marriage and baby, provides Naomi with the family continuity which softens her other losses.

 Writing in Lilith Magazine, Lori Lefkovitz, professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, suggests that we imagine Naomi and Ruth as in a film. First they are in a close up and we see them alone with the hardships in their lives-but then the angle of the camera widens, and the scene opens to include both the past and the future. We see these two women at first—then their connections with past generations and especially with the future becomes visible.

This is the perspective that we gain from the Yizkor service. Most commonly we see our loved ones and ourselves in the small frame, but through Yizkor we also gain perspective on our place and their place on an infinitely extensive trajectory.

Returning to the book of Ruth—her husband is not totally gone. The laws of the Levirite marriage provide for her first husband to be memorialized through the child she has by his kinsman. Perhaps he is present too in the tenderness that Ruth has shown to her mother-in-law, perhaps it was learned from him. It seems likely that this kindness was expressed also to the baby and down through all the generations.

In so many ways the future contains the past, even as the past seems to retreat the more we try to hold onto it.

This past week the New York Times had a book review about a study of the impact of father’s on the lives of their children especially daughters. Loving fathers help their children to be more verbal, to be healthier, to have more to contribute to their communities.

As the years pass since my father’s death, I worry that in some ways he is becoming more inaccessible to me- this article helped me remember that his contribution to my life and to the lives of so many other people, is already here, it is playing out not just in memory but in all that I am and do. Our loved ones are preserved in our character, in who we are, and who we become, even after they are gone.

Professor Lefkovitz ended her study of Ruth with words that were comforting to me and I”d like to share them with you: “The way we honor the dead is to live with the conviction that our lives are infinitely promising no matter how grim things may seem, and that the promise of our own futures is partly owed to the many, often intangible ways, that our departed have shaped who we are. “


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