I find Judaism to generally be a life-affirming religion, but there are moments where death becomes a motif within the Jewish religion. On Sukkot, we read the book of Ecclesiastes, which reminds of our frail mortality. Tisha B'Av is a time to lament all the calamity and death that has befallen the Jewish people. When loved ones pass away, there is a relatively extensive mourning process for the mourner. Even with those occasional reminders that life is fleeting when you compare yourself with the eternality of G-d, the motif is most pronounced during the High Holy Days (ימים נוראים), especially during Yom Kippur.
In Jewish tradition, the High Holy Days period is auspicious because G-d metaphorically has two Books in front of Him: the Book of Life and the Book of Death. In these books, everyone's names are inscribed. On Rosh Hashanah, each name is written in one of these books. On Yom Kippur, the books are sealed, meaning that the ten-day period is meant as an opportunity to atone for one's misdeeds. The poem Unataneh Tokef illustrates this idea of there being two Books, and determining who lives and who dies. I do not believe that there are literally two Books. I don't even believe that G-d literally determines who lives and who dies this year, but I do believe that one of the purposes of the High Holy Days, and Unataneh Tokef specifically, is to remind us that death is inevitable. It also reminds us that we are not in control of everything, including our own mortality.
And this brings us to the practice of Yizkor (יזכר). What I find interesting about Yizkor is that it is not mandated under Jewish law, yet so many people show up for the Yizkor service. Yizkor, which is an Ashkenazic minhag (custom) that became common practice in the thirteenth century, serves as a memorial service for the departed. The Yizkor service is recited four times on the Jewish calendar: during Passover, Shavuot, Shemini Artzeret, and Yom Kippur. However, the custom of Yizkor was only practiced on Yom Kippur until the eighteenth century, which lends me to believe that there is something special about the tie between Yizkor and Yom Kippur.
In a way, Yom Kippur is quasi-mimicking death. We don't eat or drink for a day. We wear a white shroud, which is also part of burial. We metaphorically approach that tipping point between life and death. And assuming that we do Yom Kippur correctly, we metaphorically die and are reborn through teshuvah in the hopes to become new and better people.
The Yizkor service enhances these motifs by putting life and death into perspective. By thinking of those who have since departed, we realize that while people do not live forever, they live through our memories, and their past influence affects how we shape the future. Yizkor is a time to remember how those from days past have positively impacted our lives. As my rabbi states in his book about Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to transcend time and space to relive past wonderful moments with departed love ones and to have just a few more minutes with them. Even with the inevitability of death, it reminds us how wonderful life can be, and how much more so that is the case when we give to others and share our greatest moments with others. It is the reminder that no man is an island, and that without the help of others, we would not be the individuals we are today.
We remember and honor the past so we can create a better future. We live through the examples set by those who have since passed. As we approach Yom Kippur, let's ask ourselves how people gave to us and influenced us. That way, we may focus on what truly matters in life and return the favor by helping make this world a slightly better than when we found it.