We often turn to the natural world for reminders of what lies beyond. This is as true today as it was 200 years ago, when the Yom Kippur Yizkor service was first celebrated at the world's first Reform synagogue. Poetry drawing on this theme helps us remember our loved ones and to dwell on the meanings of life and death.
Memory in Awe
“Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
We are here again, memories of love and loss mingling with dreams for the new year resolving into crisp reality.
Migrating once more through the currents of the Jewish year, we return again to this moment of memorial. We honor those travelers who have gone this way before, learning from them and loving them even through the thickness of years and the twisting, complicated paths of our journeys together.
In our daily lives, images of those we love come, from time to time, to the forefront of our mind, prompted by an encounter with the natural world. The sound of a dog barking with unrestrained joy; the glistening of a drop of water along the skin of a grape; the clear, hushed air tasted in the quiet of a green woods. These sensations transport us beyond ourselves, connecting us with the greater purpose that seems, in moments of transcendent clarity, to hold all life as one.
Of course, in the too-encompassing frenzy that occupies so much of our time, it is possible to miss such cues. Memory fades into the background, an unacknowledged—if constant—companion.
And then, as regular as the turning of the seasons, Jewish tradition punctuates our routine with timely reminders to give honor to the dead. On yortzeits, the anniversaries of their death, as well as, traditionally, the Yizkor memorial services of Shavuot, Passover, and Sukkot. These moments pulse in the Jewish year, inviting us—before too much time has passed—to call our loved ones to mind.
For many in our community—and perhaps all of us here—the most powerful such memorial is the Yom Kippur Yizkor service. While liturgies of memory are as old as our tradition itself, Yizkor on Yom Kippur is a fairly recent tradition. It began exactly 200 years ago today, in the city of Hamburg, Germany at the New Israelite Temple, the world’s first Reform Jewish synagogue.
One imagines the worshipers of that brand new congregation, women and men sitting together, holding freshly composed siddurim with eagerness for innovation … yet still surprised to find, nestled between the morning and afternoon prayers, a new addition to Yom Kippur. Turning their thoughts away from their own wrongdoings, our Reform forebears were granted, for a while, an interlude of memory for those who came before.
Reading page after page of florid German, members of the New Temple also meditated on the immortality of the soul, a philosophy rooted in the belief that an eternal God created the finite world.
Thou, Almighty, hast not created Thy works in order to give them over to destruction. Nothing is destroyed. Nothing will be lost which was created by Thy creative hand. Everything dies in order to be newly formed: not a mote of dust will lose its being, seeing that Thy creative breath hath formed it. How, then, should [human beings], the masterpiece of all creatures, be annihilated by death? How wouldst Thou, who only createst, but destroyest nothing, destroy the spirit living in [us], which is a part of Thine own being? No! Thou raisest the spirt unto Thyself, and only the fragile shell which contained the divine spark, only the body which is mortal, rests in the lap of the earth, and will turn into the dust out of which it was created.
In the midst of a day spent confronting our own mortality, the Yizkor service reminds us that the divine in us lives on. For “proof,” as it were, we need look no further than the miraculous world around us—a world so filled with wonders as to inspire the deepest awe in a created order that baffles all human understanding. If this world can be in its most profound and beautiful intricacy, then perhaps we can grasp the tender hope of our own place both within it and beyond.
Reform temple-goers of 1819 were really not so different from us. Like them, we often look to the natural world as a source of inspiration and faith. The world created outside and the world we strive to create in here are united, thrumming with harmony in resonance with the Eternal.
Giving our attention for a while to the natural world, we may find opportunity to recall the legacy and life of those whom we have loved.
Yehudah Amichai’s “Sonnet from the Voyage” expresses the pull of the world’s wonders and the meanings and memories they evoke.
Gulls escorted us. From time to time
one would fly down upon the waves and settle
there, like the rubber ducks when I was little
inside the bathtub of a far-off dream.
Then fog descended, all the winds were stilled,
a buoy danced and its slow ringing raised
memories of another life, effaced.
And then we knew: that we were in the world.
And the world sensed us there, with empathy;
God called to you and called to me again
with the same call, by this time almost banal,
that once addressed the patriarchs in the Bible.
We didn’t answer. Even the mild rain
splashed down, as if being wasted, on the sea.
Taking up a more terrestrial theme, Alan Michael Parker turns our attention to the family pet in his poem, “The Dog Misses You.”
The dog goes out to look for you. She circumnavigates the
yard. She has been practicing saying, I love you, in every
language. Aku sampeyan, the dog practices saying in
Javanese. Te iubesc, the dog practices saying in Romanian.
The dog digs a hole along the fence. She’s so funny when
she digs, all that dirt flying. The fence could be Time.
There is surely a different world on the other side of it. Are
you over there?
In the afternoon the dog pulls the leash so hard she almost
lifts off the ground, but you aren’t to be found. Later, at
night, the dog puts her blocky head upon the kitchen floor
and sleeps, one soft and floppy ear pressed to the linoleum,
The dog has been practicing saying, I’m lost, in every
language. Kuv poob, the dog practices saying in Hmong.
Mi estas perdita, the dog practices saying in Esperanto.
The dog has three wishes. She wishes she knew where to
find you. She wishes you would come home with a treat.
She wishes you and I were together on the bed, and up she
In “Family Tree,” Lee Rossi gives voice to the connection from one generation to another.
It begins with an inscription:
Once in our twenties we thought we would never die.
I watch my son high in the magnolia
where branches thin. His sister
at the foot of the tree shrieks for him
to come down and play with her. They know I am
watching, that I will catch him when he falls
and save her from loneliness.
They know I will be watching even when
I have sunk into the ground like the water
I sprinkle on lilies and grapes.
How they know this I do not know,
just as I don’t know where my son learned
to trust the net of leaf and limb
that keeps him aloft or what bird
gave my daughter her heartbreaking cries.
If only they could see what I see,
their father rising slowly into air,
becoming that mix of sunshine and vapor,
the brightness that brings them to tears.
Another reflection, by Maya Angelou, again draws on the imagery of the tree. “When Great Trees Fall,” captures at once the magnificence of life and the magnitude of loss.
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
The earth inspires awe. As Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches:
Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.
Awe … enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, … to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
On this Day of Awe, may memory return us to the ones we love, and may we continue to find reminders of their lives in the world we once shared. As they continue to affect us and our families and friends, may their memories ever be for a blessing.
 Hamburg Temple Prayer Book (Ordnung der öffentlichen Andacht für die Sabbath- und Festtage des ganzen Jahres), 1819, p. 279-280, Memorial Service for the Day of Atonement. Translation by Jakob Petuchowski in “Kaddish and Memorial Services,” reprinted in May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism—Yizkor, p. 100.
 In Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, p. 21. Trans. Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.
 Printed in The Sun May 2016, https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/485/the-dog-misses-you.
 Printed in The Sun, January 2013, https://thesunmagazine.org/issues/445/family-tree.
 Who Is Man? p. 88-89, reprinted in I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (ed. Samuel H. Dresner), p. 21.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”