Yom Kippur Afternoon 5777 – Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico –  Yizkor Meditation :


The brilliant scientist, Albert Einstein, was such a slow learner when he was a young child that his parents took him to a doctor to find out what was wrong with him, and he was so rebellious in school that his teachers despaired of his ever amounting to anything. We know that the reality of who he became was very different from their perception.

Einstein proudly identified with the Jewish people but denied any belief in God. He insisted that he was not an atheist, but rather an agnostic – leaving open the possibility of belief. One of our kabbalat Shabbat services includes an explanation by Albert Einstein of his understanding of religiousness. He wrote:

 “The most beautiful and deepest experience one can have is the sense of the mysterious. One who has never had this experience seems to me if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection – this is religiousness. In this sense, I am religious.”

He believed in what he could sense, in a reality that he intuited, a reality behind and beyond what he could perceive.

Roman Vishniac, the famous photographer who captured images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe just before it was destroyed, was also a scientist. Naomi and I were privileged to know him in his later years, and in fact I co-officiated at his funeral with Elie Wiesel. Most people who know of Dr. Vishniac’s photographs, however, have no idea that he was also a prominent microbiologist.

Like Einstein, he was not an actively religious man. And yet he was a person of strong religious belief. To demonstrate it, he told me something I have never forgotten: All human creations become coarser and coarser the larger we magnify them under a microscope. But the reverse is true when it comes to objects in nature: The greater the magnification the finer they appear, the more symmetrical. And to prove it – although I didn’t doubt that he was right — he showed me some of his photographs of microscopic creatures he had taken at high magnification under his microscope.  The higher the magnification, the more intricacy, structure and detail. The reality was far more extraordinary than the perception! And in that reality, for him, was a species of religious belief.

Einstein’s and Vishniac’s thoughts on perception and reality can help us at this yizkor service and whenever we remember loved ones who are gone from us – if we are to remember them properly. What do I have in mind? Something both complicated and simple.

When loved ones die, we are left with a swirl of memories and responses. We feel both guilt and anger: at them for dying and at ourselves for letting them die, for not doing a better job of showing our love or caring for them. We try to forget everything that ever troubled us about our loved ones and focus only on the best that was in them, the wonderful things they did for everyone, the shining example our memories insist that they set for us, an example we can never emulate because they were so perfect.

Or we are consumed with rage and resentment, remembering every fault, every flaw, every reason we turned away from them when they were alive.

Such memories –these extremes of adulation and excoriation – are wrong. We have to separate perception – the representations of reality in our memory – from what really was. We must not permit ourselves to get confused. We are not permitted to make either demons or gods out of our remembered loved ones. In all likelihood, their reality wasn’t as depraved or as exalted or, in any case, as single-faceted as we tend to remember them. We need to cultivate a discriminating sense of reality that does not disable or overwhelm us. We must not let our memories destroy us by taking on a false reality of their own. We could never live up to the glorified good deeds or live down the supposed failure we impute to our loved ones who are no more.

The memories of our loved ones should sustain us. Over time, we can let their flaws fade; we can cherish their virtues grown larger. We can laugh at their foibles as well as smile fondly at their virtues. But our perceptions must be rooted in reality, in gaining a proper perspective. Only then can the pain of our losses grow more gentle; only then will we be able to walk tall, not crippled but supported by the precious memories that we carry with us always.