The Museum of Musical Instruments (Yizkor 5781, Rabbi David S. Widzer; 9/28/2020)
I have a friend, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, who shared with me a wonderful story. He had heard it, in turn, from another colleague and friend, and so the anecdote is shared from one Jewish community to another, as we pause for reflection in this service of memory.
Rabbi Rosenberg told me about a special museum, somewhere in Europe. He wrote:
“It’s a museum that contains nothing but fine musical instruments – countless examples of antique, exquisite instruments, each one a virtual work of art. And, at that museum, there can be found a man with a singular, extraordinary task. Every day, this man enters the museum, and goes to the section that contains the violins, cellos, and other stringed instruments. He walks up to the first one, and he takes it out of its protective case, and begins to play it. Sitting there for maybe five or 10 minutes, the mostly empty hall is filled with the echoing sounds of the beautiful music made on this artifact. Then, he puts the instrument back in its case for safekeeping, and moves on to the next case. He takes out that instrument, and begins again. And he continues, instrument by instrument, until each one has been played. All day, every day. Each instrument is given its turn to make its music.
A visitor to the museum once watched the man at work for some time, and approached him with the obvious question: ‘What is this all about? Why do you do this? And how did you get permission from the museum to handle all of these priceless instruments?’
‘You misunderstand,’ the man gently replied. ‘I didn’t seek permission. This is my job. I am employed by the museum to play each instrument, every day.’
‘Everyday? Why do they need you to do that?’
“It’s a funny thing about these instruments,’ the man explained. ‘They need to be played. A fine older instrument such as this that gets left on the shelf for too long deteriorates. The wood gets weak, and the tuning mechanism gets stuck. After a while, it becomes impossible to ever get it back into proper playing shape. But, if you take it out and play it regularly, it stays healthy. It may deteriorate a bit, with time. But, cared for properly, it will always be what it was meant to be. It will last a lifetime. It will outlive us all.’”
The same is true, Rabbi Rosenberg points out, with our memories. Like the older instruments, they seem fragile and delicate, worthy of being locked away or observed as from behind glass. We keep them, we store them, we safeguard them. But memories, liked the fine stringed instruments in the museum, are not meant to lie dormant. Memories are meant to be remembered. They are meant to be strummed and played. They are meant to make music, to sing. They are meant to be maintained and kept vibrant. They are meant to be alive.
This is most true of our memories of our loved ones who are no longer with us. For many of us, I suspect, we do keep their memories alive and in our thoughts on a daily basis. We think of them when we share stories or photos or anecdotes about them. We hear their responses to questions we ask only in our heads. We feel their approval, their warm embrace, when we act in a way that would have made them proud. Their memories continue to make music for us in our everyday lives.
Judaism understands how important and meaningful this is. And so it instituted the Yizkor service four times a year, on Yom Kippur and on each of the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. When we include the yahrzeit, the anniversary of a loved one’s death, that makes 5 times a year, 5 dedicated moments of remembering, 5 opportunities to take those memories out of their cases and play them lovingly. Whether we regularly think of our loved one or not, we can all use the reminding to remember. Like the man whose job it is to keep those ancient instruments in tune, Judaism prompts us to remember to remember. We honor all of our memories with this Yizkor service today, and in doing so, allow them once again to make music in our lives.
For those whom we loved
For those whose lives we cherished
we recite these Yizkor prayers.
Zichronam Livracha – may the memories of our loved ones always be a blessing.