As a native of the Midwest living on the East Coast, I am occasionally asked what it’s like there. Sometimes, I simply say, “it’s nice” and sometimes I answer the question with another question, like: “What do you think it’s like? I’ve found that Easterners think that it’s pretty desolate there, with a lot of farm land and very little “civilization.” Where I grew up, it was just the opposite. And, as a result, I know about as much about farming and crops and harvests as any New Yorker from Manhattan or Brooklyn or the Bronx. But, I know enough to be aware of the similarities between an agricultural harvest and the ways in which our memories work.
It seems to me that a harvest has three functions: to serve as an occasion for celebrating the bounty of Nature, to bring together the best of the crops that have been cultivated, and to sustain the people for whom the crops are so important. To our ancestors who were farmers and to present-day farmers, the importance of the harvest would be unquestioned. And it also without question that we have our own “harvest of memories” for our loved ones.
For our ancestors who lived in the land of Canaan, which later became known as “Israel” and “Judah,” the holiday of Sukot (Tabernacles) was the fall harvest. It was then that they would certainly find out whether their hard work in planting the summer crop had paid off or not. A summer drought meant a bleak harvest. But, more often than not, they probably enjoyed a bountiful harvest. Sukot, previously a holiday of historical significance commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, became an occasion for celebrating. The holiday was seven days long, and the eighth day – Shemini Atzeret – was a separate event, a so-called “sacred assembly.” The harvest, combined with the holiday, provided them with an occasion for collecting the bounty of Nature, and for thanking God for what they had.
By the same token, this holiday is a special occasion for us. It is one of the four times during the year that we observe Yizkor, following the first on Yom Kippur by less than two weeks. The heightened sensitivity and strong emphasis on remembering on Yom Kippur still prevail on this occasion. While Yizkor is in no way a celebration as a harvest might have been, it is an occasion on which we can give thanks. We can be thankful for the bounty of memories we have of those who are no longer living but who will always be loved. And, it makes remembering easier and more fulfilling when we have an occasion such as Yizkor to make that remembering a regular and special activity. The other important fact about Yizkor is that it’s a public occasion, a time when we can share the experience of remembering with others in a communal context.
As in every endeavor of life, our ancestors found that what happened at the time of the harvest was not always perfect. Not all of their crops were successful and not every plant of a successful crop was the best it could be. But the point of a harvest was to glean the best of each crop and use it for food. In addition, the harvest time – particularly Sukot – brought out the best in our ancestors morally. They made it a practice to offer the best of their fruits and their cuttings to God. And, they were commanded to leave the four corners of their fields unharvested, to not pick their vineyards bare, and to reserve some of what they had for the poor and the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
Similarly, when we have a harvest of our memories, we tend to recall the best qualities of people and the best experiences we shared with them. We would agree that their lives may not have been perfect, or that their actions may not always have been exemplary. But these facts do not deter us from remembering the best about them. The ancient rabbis believed that there was always something positive to say about everyone; that’s why they insisted on eulogies at funerals. Neither they nor I would propose to have rose-colored glasses or to create erroneous pictures of people who didn’t really exist. Reality is important, but so is the act of remembering. In thinking about loved ones positively, it brings out the best in us. And, like the harvest did for our ancestors, our remembering should benefit us and those close to us.
Finally, the harvest provided sustenance for people. In a literal sense, the products or produce of the harvest kept them alive, giving them physical sustenance. And, the harvest must have had some emotional value, too – as a time unlike any other, as an event to be regarded with great anticipation, and as the culmination of one period and the beginning of another. Even in the years when the yield was not the greatest, there still must have been a keen awareness of the cycles and rhythms of Nature, and a sense of comfort because of the ways in which our people made time sacred.
In the same way, our memories provide sustenance for us. We may wish that things had been different – that loved ones were still alive, that they had lived longer, that we had said more to them or done more for them than we did. We may have these wishes, and then realize that we cannot change what has happened. It is crucial to remember what was, not to imagine what could have been. And then, it is a mitzvah to honor our loved ones who have died, to cherish our memories of them and be sustained by those memories, to understand that our lives changed when they died, and to be increasingly aware of how we spend our comparatively brief time on this Earth.
We do not have to be farmers to understand that a harvest is a communal occasion which brings the best to people to enhance their lives and to sustain them. And, we do not have to be recent mourners to understand that our memories that are brought back by a communal occasion such as Yizkor, can bring out the best in us and always sustain us. May our memories be pleasant, providing us with a sense of thankfulness for the past and a real feeling of sustenance for the future.
Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.