If life experience is any teacher at all, we will have learned that all things need to be renewed or else their effect is lost. Automobile registrations, licenses, health cards, and passports must be renewed. Inoculations must be renewed with booster shots. Wooden decks keep their natural appearance only if artificial treatments are applied from time to time. Permanent waves are not permanent; and neither is cosmetic surgery.
And what is true of things are true of human relationships. Consider friendships, for example. In Chapter 18 of the First Book of Samuel (v.3) we read: “VaYikhrot Yehonatan v’David b’rit,” Jonathan and David made a pact of friendship. Yet a mere five chapters later (I Samuel 23:18) we read again: “VaYikhretu shneihem b’rit,” the two made a pact of friendship: almost the identical language to convey the identical idea. But much had transpired in between. Saul, Jonathan’s father and King of Israel, had tried repeatedly to kill his rival David. By secretly supporting David, Jonathan, the presumptive heir to the throne, was overtly challenging his father the king, and would be ceding his claim to govern. To be sure, the pressure to reclaim his position of prince of Israel and curry his father’s favour would have been enormous. David had every reason to doubt Jonathan’s friendship. He might have reasoned that when friends change we need to change friends. And he might have thought that under the pressure his friend had changed. Hence, a renewal of their pact of friendship was needed as reassurance.
Consider marital relations. Anniversaries are celebrated not merely because they mark a memorable date. Anniversaries are celebrated because they imply a renewal of love and commitment. This is particularly the case for those who organize special anniversaries like a twenty-fifth or fiftieth that might include what is popularly called “a renewal of vows,” even though there are no vows in a Jewish wedding. These celebrations are not a testament to endurance, but a renewal of spirit.
Consider Yizkor. The first mention of anything akin to Yizkor appears in Chapter 12 of the First Book of Maccabees that records how Judah and his followers prayed for the souls of their fallen comrades and brought offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem to atone for their sins. But by the Middle Ages, Yizkor was no longer considered a memorial for the dead but a sacred recommitment ceremony to the noble values personified by the dead. In other words, Yizkor is a renewal of our loyalty to our ancestors and to the principles for which they lived. It is a sad fact of life that the people we care about most are taken from us too soon. Yet time passes and our memories fail. Yizkor is a way of recapturing those failing memories and renewing them.
And consider the idea of the covenant, the special relationship struck between God and Israel at Sinai. We tend to assume that the covenant was permanent and guaranteed. And yet immediately after the episode of the Golden Calf, God renews the covenant (Exodus 34:10). No doubt the Israelites might have reasoned that the sin of constructing a visible and alternative God might have invalidated the covenant. So God acts to reassure them otherwise. And before Moses’ death (Deuteronomy 29:11), God renews the covenant again. And before entering into the land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, a great ceremony for the renewal of the covenant was staged at Shekhem. The words of that renewal (Joshua 24:2-4) are now enshrined in the Passover Haggadah following the introductory superscript: “M-t’hilah ovdai avodah zarah hayyu avoteinu…” The celebration of Passover in particular was at the center of the renewal of the covenant during the reign of king Josiah. And at some time in the future, asserts the prophet Jeremiah, the covenant will be – must be – renewed again (Jeremiah 31:32): “zot ha-brit asher ekhrot et beit Yisrael aharei hayamim ha-hem…” What all this comes to teach is that without periodic renewal, even a covenant can grow stale; even a covenant can be forgotten; its message lost.
Periodic renewal is the way God assures that something as important as the covenant will endure. Periodic maintenance of important things is the way we assure that they endure. Periodic celebration of anniversaries is the way we proclaim that our love and commitment will endure. And periodic commemoration of Yizkor is the way we assure ourselves that the lessons we learn from our departed shall endure.