Family Challenges

Whenever we get to Yizkor I try to focus on the positive memories that we have of our loved ones who have no longer physically present with us. Sometimes that is very difficult to do. As much as I’d like it not to be the case, not everyone has warm, loving memories of their parents, siblings, children or spouse. Some rabbis have given sermons on how does one say Yizkor for an abusive parent or for a sibling with whom one has not spoken in years.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to say Yizkor for a relative with whom one did not have the most positive of relationships. Most of us have family challenges in one form or another. Some are estranged from their parents or not on speaking terms with siblings. Others have difficulties with their children. My sermon is not intended to heal those wounds, nor is it meant to glaze over them. Rather it is meant to try to find a silver lining, remembering any positive encounters we have had with the person. As Yizkor means remember, we have some degree of control and selectivity over which memories we choose to cherish and which we decide to disregard. If we cannot find a positive memory, let us at least, for our own benefit, let go of the negative feelings we hold.

In Siddur Lev Shalem, the new Conservative prayerbook in the back, there is a Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent who was Hurtful on Page 335 written by Robert Saks. The last two sentences read as follows: Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time. I pray that You, who raise up slaves to freedom, will liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger, and that You will lead me from this desert to Your holy place.

Today we read the Book of Ruth, a story which begins with a dysfunctional family. Ruth was a Moabite, a people who came from an incestual union between Lot and his daughters. In fact, the name Moav comes from the Hebrew “may’av,” from my father. Ruth’s future husband, Boaz, is a descendant of Perez, one of the children of the incestual relationship between Judah and Tamar. Both Ruth and Boaz are ultimately products of incest yet who do they produce? None other but the great King David himself, the greatest king ever of Israel, the man who conquered Jerusalem, the man who will be the progenitor of the Messiah!

Through family dysfunction will emerge a thing of true beauty. The Messiah will be a product of incest on both sides of his family, yet that will not stop him/her from bringing an age of peace to the world. We do not have control over the family we are born into or grow up in or how others in the family respond to us: what we do have control over is how we react and handle difficult family situations. As Mahatna Ghandi said, “We need to be the change we want to see in the world.”

King David’s story also demonstrates the power of the individual to effect change. When the Prophet Samuel visited David’s father Jesse to see which of his sons would become the next King of Israel, Jesse brought out seven sons, none of whom were deemed worthy of being king. Finally Samuel asked Jesse, “Is this all of your children?” and he replied, “There is still my youngest, tending to the sheep.”[1] Upon seeing David, G-d told Samuel, “Arise and anoint him, for this is he.”[2] The young, neglected shepherd boy can thus become the mighty ruler of Israel. All he needs is to be given the opportunity.

It is far too easy to blame life circumstances on our upbringing, our genetics or happenstance. The more important albeit difficult thing is to do the best with what we have to be the people we are meant to be. Ruth did so by choosing to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi and take the journey back to Israel, though it would have been far easier for her to remain in Moav with her family of origin. David would have had an easier life staying back and tending the sheep or not stepping forth to fight Goliath, yet his coming forward changed Jewish history forever. Similarly, it is our task to do our part to effect positive changes within our family and our community.

Yizkor is about remembering, but memory by itself is not enough. Our memories need to lead us to take steps forward to overcome challenges in our path. It does not mean to solve every problem or to “fix” things but at least to attempt to make positive changes in our lives and in those we care about. Sometimes all that is required is taking the first step forward with family members and we unexpectedly get met halfway. At other times we try and end up in the same place we began, but at least we made the effort. If Ruth and King David didn’t attempt to make changes, our people would not be in the place they are today.

As we say Yizkor, let us reflect on all memories shared with those who have left our midst, but let us focus on those which are most positive and productive, using them as the impetus to propel us forward. May we take the steps necessary to build or repair bridges with those with whom we have had difficulties, doing our part to create harmony and cohesion, while recognizing that we cannot solve all family problems. Following in the example of Ruth, who knows what will happen-perhaps we will see the blessing of the Messiah in our lifetimes.

We continue with Yizkor on Page 509.

[1] 1 Samuel 16:11

[2] 1 Samuel 16:13

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