God's kiss comes to us at two powerful moments: revelation and death. This is the perfect overlap of the celebration of Shavuot and the observance of Yizkor.
Today we stand once again face to face with God.
When first we stood at Sinai’s foot, we made ourselves ownerless-open to receive revelation. Now again in our collective mythic imagination, we strive to lay ourselves bare before the timeless wisdom and enduring value of our tradition’s greatest teachings. We suspend the past and clear the future, holding still in a moment of eternal connection between the Torah and our souls.
As we step once again into sandals dusty with the sand of Sinai, our ears echo with ancestral memories of divine encounter. Thunder, fire, the long clear blast of the numinous shofar … the glory of God descends in thunderous cloud and billowing smoke to announce God’s presence!
And yet, God is not in the fire… God is not in the earthquake or the wind. God is in the still small voice within, speaking loudly enough only for each one of us to hear. אַיֶּכָּה, God asks: “Where are you?”, summing and factoring our lives into a single question that demands our fullest attention.
At once both universal and intensely personal, God’s voice reaches every human being where she stands—and so it has been since those first ten utterances from the peak of the Mountain.
God speaks softly, even from Mount Sinai. These mind-numbing metaphysics are part and parcel of the rabbinic imagination of the Ten Commandments first uttered on the first Shavuot celebrated by the Hebrew people newly freed.
Rabbi Johanan taught that on that day, an angel carried the word of God to every single Israelite arrayed at the foot of the mountain and conversed individually with each one. “Do you accept the divinity of the Holy One?” the angel asked. “Yes, yes!” came each reply. Whereupon the angel kissed the Israelite on the mouth, signaling the depth and intensity of the holy connection to God’s beloved children. The Rabbis saw the fire and thunder manifest on Sinai as merely cloaks enshrouding the true intimacy of God’s touch.
Our tradition can imagine no greater symbol of ecstasy and peace than God’s kiss. It comes to us at our most vulnerable and significant moments of divine encounter. Aside from moments of revelation, symbolized on Shavuot by the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai, our tradition recognizes one other occasion worthy of the kiss of God: the moment of death. As the Rabbis teach, “The souls of the righteous will be taken away with a kiss.” The moment of death is as soft and gentle as drawing hair out of milk, and more than anything else, it is accompanied by God’s loving embrace.
It is this divine kiss that overlaps our celebration of Shavuot and our observance of Yizkor. Our tradition illustrates this connection in a midrash about Moses’ death. In its telling, each of us is invited to see in Moses’ place our own loved ones whom we remember today.
At the appointed hour, Moses arose and sanctified himself like the angels, and God came down from the highest heavens to take away his soul. … God said: “Moses, fold your eyelids over your eyes,” and he did so. And God said: “Place your hands upon your breast,” and he did so. And God said: “Put your feet next to one another,” and he did so. Forthwith the Holy One summoned the soul from the midst of his body, saying to her: “My daughter, I have fixed the period of your stay in the body of Moses at a hundred and twenty years; now your end has come. Depart, delay not.” … Thereupon God kissed Moses and took away his soul with a kiss of the mouth.
For some of us, the death of our loved ones mirrored this peaceful exchange. For others, the memory of their last moments is fraught with fear and suffering. But in all cases—our tradition insists with loving urgency—the moment of death is one of peace. We mourn the loss of all we have held dear—of parents and children, of siblings and spouses, of mentors and friends—just as we strive to recall that the soul returns to the God who gave it, a homecoming suffused with longing and tranquility.
Shavuot is a festival of memory. We call to mind the latent impressions of God’s personal address etched in the foundation of our Jewish souls. And we recall with honor and blessing the memories of those we have loved and lost. This duality of purpose enlivens the words of Israeli author Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), alav hashalom, in his poem אבי היה אלוהים ולא ידע, or “My Father Was God and Did Not Know It.” Its text combines the Ten Commandments with the tender memory of a beloved parent, epitomizing the sentiments of Yizkor on Shavuot.
My father was God and did not know it.
He gave me
The Ten Commandments
neither in thunder nor in fury; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.” And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat
In a single melody and he pleaded and
cried quietly between one utterance and the next, “Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain, I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing. “Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
On the earth.” And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.
May these words of intimacy and inspiration give honor to the memory of those we mourn today. May their legacies live on as blessings to the world, and may we recall in our moments of fondest memory that theirs was a death—and a life—nurtured and ennobled by the kiss of God.
Zichronam livrachah, may their memories ever be for a blessing.
 Cf. Exodus 19.
 Cf. 1 Kings 19.
 Gen. 3:9. Martin Buber (The Way of Man (1950), “The First Hasidic Tale.”) teaches that God addresses us with this question each and every day.
 Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:13.
 Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:16.
 BT Berachot 8a.
 Devarim Rabbah 11:10, adapted slightly.
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