On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations.
On Yom Kippur, we came together virtually or in carefully limited groups and recited some of the most difficult prayers in Jewish liturgy. We asked for forgiveness, we searched our souls, and recalled those we lost. Yizkor, the service of remembrance, is a central feature of the Yom Kippur service. The memories of loved ones, of old friends, of public figures, sat with us as we prayed throughout that solemn day.
Less than two weeks later we recite Yizkor again, on Shemini Atzeret, literally “the festival on the eighth day. I’ve wondered about the purpose of this second, less well-known Yizkor in such a short period of time. How do we mentally and emotionally evoke the same vulnerability that we had when we recalled and honored our loved ones on Yom Kippur?
This Shemini Atzeret, let us think about the profound recent losses that have impacted us as a community, including the over 200,000 people in the United States who lost their lives to COVID-19: the front line workers, the teachers, the health care professionals, the elderly, the young, the parents who left behind children, the people who knowingly placed themselves in harm’s way to care for others, and the people who had no idea how they contracted the disease. Let us take time to mourn the loss of normalcy, the loss of handshakes and hugs, the loss of jobs and homes, the loss of precious in-person classroom learning, the loss of connection beyond our immediate households.
In the solemn gathering of this eighth day, between the joyful festivals of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle, we should make space for the sadness around us and within us. We recognize the paradox of celebrating while so many suffer, while our world is completely upended from where it was a year ago. Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret is a space for this grief, a poignant acknowledgement that we must take time for our sadness, but not let it stop us from seeing the joy in the world.
We enter 5781 balancing so many emotions and unknowns, but we are not without hope. We begin a new cycle of the Torah with the promise of new learning, new insights, and renewed strength. We carry the memories of those we lost, of the life we had before, and commit ourselves to building a stronger future for the living.