The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 45

My grief is terribly indescribable and indescribably terrible. Writing about it twists my stomach into knots, clauses searing through my abdomen, as I tear into it with jagged words, gashing at sticky, fleshy gobs of disbelief that spill out in thick rivulets of revulsion.

That’s as far as I got with blog post #45 before Tuesday, May 28. I couldn’t force out any further words before the final kaddish.

I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t accept it.

It’s ridiculous, really.

* * *

In December, when I’d first learned (blog #20) of Rabbi Benny Lau’s (b. 1961) ‘prayer for the last Kaddish’, I’d been judgmental of the two women I’d heard reciting it. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful for them to write ‘final prayers’ of their own? I thought. I will write my own prayer; I will use my own words.

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

Months later, as May 28 made its steady approach, I couldn’t find any inspiration. Worse, I was rebelling against the very premise of this prayer. I don’t care that eleven months of kaddish recitations have gone by. My ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog is my true kaddish for Papa;  I’ll continue with it until his yahrzeit. I don’t care about shul; I’m only going through the motions anyway.

I lie to myself sometimes. The truth is- I do care.

On May 26, two days before the final kaddish, I stopped by the bakery where Papa used to purchase bourekas on his visits to us during the summer months. How early do you open? I wanted to know. Fresh bourekas are available by 6:00, I was told. Good, that’s before the first kaddish of shacharit.

On May 27, one day before the final kaddish, I took a deep breath. I can’t write a personal prayer -I can’t even admit how much I care about this- but tomorrow is the final day of kaddish. This is the end. Will I really let it pass without notice? Damn, damn, damn it. Ugh! Truth is: I’m no different than any other mourner, overwhelmed and wordless. Maybe I should use Rav Benny’s prayer as those two women did… I suppose his words would feel no less foreign to me than the kaddish once did… 

Traditional Jewish prayer is formulaic. It serves when we don’t know what to say, when articulation is too overwhelming, when we feel empty of self-expression, when we simply need a dependable tool for connection…

– Me, blog #9

And so.
I pulled up Rav Benny’s prayer in my browser.
Despite and because of myself.

* * *

But… Rav Benny is an Orthodox rabbi. His prayer, creatively innovative though it is, is a believer’s prayer. Its words not only flow along with the rhythms of Jewish tradition; they flow forth from it.

Skeptic that I am, I don’t accept some of Rav Benny’s premises:

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם… הִשְׁתַּדַּלְתִּי לְכַבֵּד אֶת אָבִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת… עָשִׂיתִי כְּכָל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנוּ… לָעֵת הַזֹּאת… אֶשָּׂא תְּחִנָּה לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁיַּעֲלוּ כָּל תְּפִלּוֹתַי לְפָנֶיךָ לְרָצוֹן וְתֵיטִיב לְאָבִי, הֲרֵינִי כַּפָּרַת מִשְׁכָּבוֹ Our Father in Heaven… I strove to honor my father this year… I have done as you commanded us… At this time… I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall go up before You and be acceptable to You, and You shall do good for my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place…

Where to begin?

Firstly, I couldn’t bring myself to write a personal prayer for my final kaddish precisely because I am still in my year of mourning for Papa. Rav Benny’s prayer refers to ‘this year’ in the past tense, as if his year of mourning ended upon his recitation of this personal plea, which took place after only 11 months (following his final kaddish for his own father).

Further: as far as I am concerned, my Jewish mourning experience lasts for the duration of 13 months from the date of my father’s death until his yahrzeit (this anomaly is the result of the Hebrew leap year, which has pushed the anniversary of Papa’s death back by a full month on the Hebrew calendar – blog #32).

Secondly, I don’t believe that God ‘commanded us’ to recite Kaddish for our loved ones. As of today, I remain entirely unconvinced of God’s involvement in our lives, let alone what He may or may not have commanded us to do.

Further: as we’ve learned on this kaddish journey, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a tradition (not included on any list of 613 mitzvot), which was developed by human beings and incorporated into communal Jewish prayer during the medieval era.

Lastly, while I have been at prayer and praying every single day since my father was buried on July 9th, I reject the notion that I need ‘plea’ for my prayers to ‘be acceptable’ for Papa’s redemption. The God I may just be capable of believing in is just and merciful – He knows full well whether my prayers have been sincere and deserving or not.

Further: my father does not need anybody else to be an ‘atonement’ for him. He was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.
(This is not to say that he was perfect)
Further: I am certain that everyone who knew him well would agree with this.
Further: this is true regardless of religious doctrine, regardless of my father’s religiosity, and regardless of my religious proclivity.

So…

* * *

With humility and deep appreciation, I rewrote Rav Benny Lau’s prayer to reflect my beliefs and sentiments (the skeptic’s version of the believer’s prayer):

אבינו שבשמים Our Heavenly Father,
על פי דרישות המסורת according to the expectations of the Tradition,
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי I have merited to complete the recitation of kaddish for the rising up of the soul of my father and teacher,
מאז עלייתו לגִּנְזֵי מרומים ועד עתה from the time of his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until now.
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי במשך תקופה זו בכל נפשי ובכל מאודי I have striven to honor my father during this period with all my soul and all my might,
אך מבחינתי although from my perspective,
התהליך הזה לא יושלם עד היארצייט שלו this process will not be completed until his yahrzeit,
אשר יהיה בעוד חודשיים which will be in another two months.
ועתה עומד אני לפניך קצת נִרְגָּשׁ And now I stand before You, slightly anxious,
אבל גם בביטחון ואומר but also with confidence, and say:
עשיתי מה שנדרש על פי המסורת I have done that which is expected according to the Tradition.
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן שחרית At this time, as I stand before You during the morning prayer,
אני מאמין שכל כוונותי ממשיכות לעלות לפניך לרצון I believe that all of my intentions continue to rise up before You and are acceptable to You,
ואני מאמין שתיטיב לאבי and I believe that You will do Good by my father,
שהרי היה הוא אדם טוב לב, הָגוּן וצנוע for he was a kindhearted, decent, and modest man,
ותעניק לו את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב and You will grant him his place in the world that is all good,
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָת אלכסנדר בן משה And bind the soul of Alexander ben Mosheh in the bond of life.
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his heritage;
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

I spent some time editing the text; once I felt satisfied with it, my friend Sagi (a native Israeli) was kind enough to review my Skeptic’s Prayer and ravel out my Hebrew. I read through it yet again at my desk, closed my eyes, and shuddered.

* * *

On May 28, the day of the final kaddish, my alarm rang at 5:30 in the morning. I got myself out of bed, mechanically went through my morning routine, and put one bottle of orange juice and one bottle of Monkey Shoulder Scotch whiskey into a sturdy, reusable shopping bag, along with my ‘Skeptic’s Prayer for the Last Kaddish’ in a firm, plastic sleeve.

I walked to shul and left the bag near the entrance; then crossed the street over to the bakery. At the back, I ordered two large, heaping boxes of sundry bourekas, and made my way over to the cashier, who happened to be the owner. So you came for the bourekas. He smiled. Today is my final kaddish for my father. I nodded. Of course I came. The man’s eyes lowered and rose to meet mine again. May his memory be for a blessing. Here, have a discount.

I recited each kaddish that morning as if I were parting with every syllable forever, but my voice held steady. At the end of services, the gabbai announced: David Bogomolny would like to invite all of us to partake of refreshments in honor of his father, and he will now recite a prayer to mark the end of his eleven months of kaddish.

After a brief introduction and sincere note of appreciation for my fellow petitioners, I read my Skeptic’s Prayer aloud so that all could hear me. My voice shook, but I managed to read it in its entirety. ‘May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.’

– AMEN.

Afterwards, standing at the refreshments table and surrounded by kind, familiar faces, I heard everybody making blessings in honor of my father. My legs felt unsteady, my breath uneven; my heart pounding as I let my breath out. Man… I could sure use some whiskey.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 42

Eleven months of kaddish recitations end for me on May 28 (Iyyar 23); I have been at the grind for ten months (10 ÷ 11 ≈ 91%). The grief is unabating. I remain shattered and scattered.

Last summer, I couldn’t bring myself to pour my endless despair out upon anyone. Having returned home to Jerusalem in July from sitting shiva in America, I instinctively reached out to my rabbi, but…

“May I see you? I am back,” in mid-July I e-mailed Rabbi Landes.
“Sure, when?” he responded two minutes later.
Suddenly, the simplest of questions had no answer.
When?
All the time.
The following morning I wrote again:

I actually don’t quite know – I really want to see you, but I think I need a few more days to get back into my routine and begin to deal with work and parenthood again.
I’ve been going to minyan to say kaddish – that’s a big change for me. I’ll be in touch with you again – thank you for everything.

Three weeks went by.

I published my first blog post thirty days after burying Papa.

Unexpectedly, I felt something click other than my mouse button. Ten days later I published #2, drawn to the modest refuge I’d found before in the craggy crannies between words and letters.

* * *

This Pesach I had too much time with my thoughts, and darkness wormed in through the defenses of my flimsy redoubt. Actually, the walls had already started to crack at least one week earlier, during a Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (VMK) call, a project initiated by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie.

During our family’s holiday break last week, I was talking to my wife about the perpetual sense of isolation I experience among non-mourners and the unanticipated, visceral relief of that one VMK call. Our four-year-old daughter was trying to follow our conversation and inquired as to what we were talking about.

“Abba’chka is saying that he misses Dedushka Shurik very much.”
“Why?”
(she asks this about everything)
“Because he is my father and your grandfather; and I love him; but we’ll never see him again.”
“I know that;” she responded knowingly, “but he’ll always be in your heart.” (she’d absorbed this insight from her Mama’s font of wisdom)

* * *

VMK – context, concept

Renowned Israeli diplomat and holocaust survivor Naphtali Lau-Lavie (1926-2014) left behind two sons, both rabbis. Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961), the older son, is an Orthodox rabbi and community leader in Jerusalem. Upon completing his kaddish odyssey in honor of their father, Rav Lau wrote and recited an original prayer to mark the end of his journey (blog #20). A newly fashioned prayer in the religiously circumspect world of Orthodoxy is no small thing, yet his words continue to flow from mourners’ lips.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie (b. 1969), the younger brother, inhabits a Jewish society in the USA much different than that of his Israeli Orthodox family. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, he had been a creative, non-Orthodox spiritual leader long before then; and he continues to operate beyond the bounds of denominationalism. Upon the death of their father, Rav Lau-Lavie initiated the weekly VMK conference call, and to this day, he or a staff person is on the phone every single week to support an intentional, international community of Jewish mourners.

My own kaddish journey led me first to Rav Benny’s original mourning prayer and eventually, perhaps inevitably, to Rav Amichai’s boundaryless VMK.

* * *

VMK – experience, expression

It wasn’t until February that I discovered the VMK by way of my endless kaddish excavations, and it wasn’t until mid-April that I was able to join the weekly conference call (every Thursday at 12:00 PM EST).

I dialed the phone number a couple of minutes before schedule and waited. Silence. Then the beeps began. A woman’s voice came on. “Hello, this is Shira from Lab/Shul. Welcome to the VMK call. Could each of you introduce yourself and say where you’re calling from?”

The names are rather a blur, but callers seemed to be phoning in from Canada and throughout the USA. “I’m from Jerusalem,” I said. “Wow,” she responded, “what’s the weather like?” Upon hearing my response, a gentleman in Toronto shared, “It’s snowing here;” and I laughed aloud at the contrast.

Pent up energy brought me to my feet, and I paced the hallway as I listened. Somebody else introduced himself and explained, “I’m not in mourning right now, but I’m calling to help make minyan for kaddish.” A lump rose to my throat and I noticed my mouth twisting in the nearby mirror. “Thank you,” said Shira, “I’m keeping count, and I’m sure more people will be joining us during the call.”

Shira softly shared some thoughts on the theme of Pesach and the symbolism of water in the festival. “With Passover so soon upon us, as our preparations for the holiday get underway, we often feel the absences of our loved ones all the more poignantly,” she observed. “Would anybody like to share something that is coming up for them this season? A memory or reflection?”

There were no interruptions during the call. Heartbeats elapsed as participants made time for one another to speak, punctuated only by occasional beeps as additional mourners joined our circle. Only four (or five) of us shared stories; the rest seemed content to listen quietly.

Finally the time came to end our call. “Thank you all so much,” said Shira. “We will now recite the kaddish together. Please feel free to share the names of your loved ones with us before the recitation.” Then, some of us more hesitantly than others, we spoke the names of those we’d lost. “Alexander ben Mosheh;” I felt my tongue render, “my Papa.”

Even at the end, during the recitation of mourner’s kaddish, only several of our voices were audible. Most had joined the call only to listen.

Only to listen

My energized pacing had continued ceaselessly throughout the call, driven by the springing of a densely coiled tension. I could feel my heart unclench, as the clasps of my reservations undid themselves.

In that impermanent VMK circle, the full weight of one’s mourning was expected and accepted; and grief found itself a more expansive canvas. Jointly, intentionally, we provided and received together – mutual human deliverance.

For all of my praying, my reading, my writing, I still have need of others to relate to me.

* * *

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, it is not for me to recount the heroism and accomplishments of Naphtali Lau-Lavie, for I have nothing to share but my naked amazement at this Israeli statesman who arose from the ashes of the Buchenwald concentration camp and succeeded at saving himself and his then eight-year-old brother who later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel. (see: Rav Benny’s beautiful tribute, which scrapes the surface of his father’s story.)

What I would, ever so humbly, like to share is that Naphtali Lau-Lavie left behind him a legacy in both of his sons that has touched my Jewish soul, and I am so so thankful for their combined inspiration and soulful creativity. Following is a snippet of Rav Benny’s tribute to his father, which moved me in particular:

The liberation from Buchenwald caught him at a crossroads. A young man, 19 years old, without parents, and tied to an 8 year-old boy…

For two weeks, my father… chose to suspend his relationship with the Master of the Universe. One morning, he received a note in Hebrew that said:

‘You must say Kaddish because your mother is no longer alive. She died in Ravensbrück.’

That is the moment when my father made the decision. No matter what may be going through your head, you do not abandon the tradition of your mother and father’s home.

That is how this great man found the strength of spirit to… reach a Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

* * *

In my mid-twenties I taught seventh grade Holocaust studies at the Hebrew school of my childhood while attending graduate school, and I absorbed and learned more about the Shoah in preparing for those classes than I’d ever assimilated as a teen. I also became more vulnerable in those years to the effects of my imagination upon my learning, not unlike the impact of my kaddish odyssey this year.

Sometimes I rise alone to recite kaddish, and sometimes I stand with many others, but always the voices of generations join with mine. On Yom HaShoah, during this, my year of mourning for my father, my mourner’s kaddish will be both personal and in honor of all the Jewish martyrs. I will recite in memory of and love for Papa, and I will recite for all who were lost to us at the hands of the Nazi genocide machine.

My ruminations recall a beautiful encapsulation of this kaddish dichotomy by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst from his book Kaddish: The Unanswered Cry (p. 7), and with this I leave you:

The Kaddish is a prayer whose utterance reflects the saga of the Jewish nation as a whole as well as the depths of emotion of the lonely Jew of faith. How powerful is the image of the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto reciting in one voice the Kaddish for their beloved, the 10,000 innocent martyrs killed by the Nazis only days before. No less moving is the image of the young orphan arising in the midst of a crowded synagogue, striving to maintain a link with his parents and the past through the Kaddish.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 21

Towards the beginning of my kaddish odyssey, back in early September, my friend Mosheh asked me:

What do you think of the other customs we have to remember / uplift the souls of loved ones after they have died (i.e. doing or giving tzeddakah or learning something in their honor)? I’m… curious on your thoughts of why Kaddish seems take center place…

That was less than two months after my father’s death. My response was brief: “I don’t have to think to say kaddish – it’s a formulaic thing that I recite, and even when I don’t know what else to say or do, it gives me a feeling that I’m doing something of significance.” At the time (after blog #4), I had yet to come across the following text, which I later found and quoted (blog #16):

Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in that manner, bring merit to their parents.

Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (1804-1886),
Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 26:22

This week, I was again reminded of this idea while reading Law and Theology in Judaism by Rabbi Prof. David Novak (b. 1941). He notes that Rabbi Avraham Horowitz (c. 1550–1615) emphasized in the introduction to his opus Yesh Nohalin that “saying Kaddish is just one mitzvah among many that ought to be specially performed during the year of mourning as proof of good parental influence.” Novak then continues (p. 113):

It would seem to follow that Kaddish ought to be recited for the full twelve months of mourning. Indeed, all other mourning practices are required for the full twelve months. Nevertheless, R. Moses Isserles… mentions that the custom arose to say Kaddish only for eleven months… [otherwise] people might think that the deceased parent did not have enough personal merit…

Indeed, all other mourning practices are required for the full twelve months. Why had I never thought of this?

On the one hand, the rabbis say that kaddish is “just one mitzvah among many” and “not of primary importance,” yet it is the only mitzvah, which merited the implementation of rabbinic limitations. No halakhic authority or voice of tradition would suggest that I cease learning and writing in my father’s honor after eleven months (or stop giving charity, etc., etc.).

One might say that kaddish differs from the other mitzvot because it is the only publicly (and readily) identifiable year-long expression of mourning, but in my case this isn’t true. What could be more public than a series of  blog posts?

So.
Shall I stop reciting kaddish after eleven months?

Given that the concern of public perception is inapplicable to me, and given that I don’t believe in the metaphysical impact of my recitations upon my departed father’s soul, I am left with experiential considerations.

* * *

Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) composed a personal prayer (blog #20) in honor of his departed father, which he recited after completing his kaddish odyssey, and many others since have adopted and adapted his language to mark their final kaddishes. Why?

A friend wrote me: “I think Rav Benny did a great thing when he decided to compose that prayer. I wish I had had it when I finished saying kaddish for each of my parents. There is a little of an empty feeling that comes over you when you finish.

Personally, I’ve been readying myself for this inevitable emptiness for some time now.

I see it like this:

The kaddish process is a vehicle by which we mark the absence of our loved ones. This year, I am proclaiming daily my father’s departure from this world; I am forced to face my fatherlessness. There can be no denying the unbending reality. Still, the kaddish also comforts; I feel connected daily to my father through it. I am reminded of him, I am thinking of him, I am affected by our love for one another.

This is why so many people feel an emptiness upon completion of eleven months of kaddish. Abruptly, all too suddenly, the process of marking absence is – absent. For some, this is barely bearable; the sheer density of the absence may feel suffocating.

We should note that Jewish mourning is broken down into five periods, seemingly designed to guide us through the rawest moments of our despair towards lifetimes of mostly-steady sorrow. In other words, traditional Jewish mourning is intended to complement the healing processes of our souls:

There are five stages to the mourning process: 1) Aninut, pre-burial mourning. 2-3) Shivah, a seven day period following the burial; within the Shivah, the first three days are characterized by a more intense degree of mourning. 4) Shloshim, the 30-day mourning period. 5) The First Year (observed only by the children of the deceased).

– Chabad, Shiva and Other Mourning Observances

But Jewish mystical thought suggests that these kaddish odysseys are intended to raise our parents’ souls to ‘The World to Come’ – in theory, my father’s soul will have risen and been released from its ties to This World at journey’s end. In theory,
the final kaddish
is – the final
parting.

The
ultimate

absenc

* * *

Traditions vary.

According to Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai’s (1724-1806) halakhic gloss known as the Birkei Yosef, the Sephardic custom is to stop reciting kaddish for the first week of the twelfth month and then continue until the anniversary of the death (yahrtzeit). I like the emotional poetry of this practice.

Still, while I’ve adopted certain other Sephardic customs, I aim to adhere to the Ashkenazic kaddish tradition of eleven months because I expect to be jarred by the twelfth month’s emptiness. I expect this, and I expect it to be terrible, but I must not avoid the day after kaddish.

I must not avoid – all the days after kaddish.

* * *

I found a beautiful comment, which my father’s university friend Sasha sent my mother in early September:

Да, он был среди нас особенный: умел представить любое дело не как последовательность целенаправленных действий, а разместить это дело в душе. Сделать его необходимым и желанным и представить его, как внутреннюю потребность. В конце концов мы все отличаемся тем, насколько мы можем поместить свою душу в этот ‘никакой, сам по себе,’ Мир. Он это делал легко, как дышал.

My mother’s translation (with some minor tweaks):

Yes, among us, he was special: he knew how to present any matter not as a subsequence of [practical] goal-oriented actions, but rather to place it in his soul. He made it necessary and desired, and presented it as an inner need. After all, we all differ by the extent of our abilities to find a place for our souls in this ‘otherwise non-distinct world.’ He did it easily, like breathing.

I connected with Sasha this week, seeking to learn more about my father, and he promised to write his memories and reflections for me. It is now for us to create a place for my papa’s soul in this non-distinct world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 20

I heard something beautiful this week.

Two of the regulars at my morning minyan completed their eleven months of kaddish, just days apart, each reciting a prayer written by Jerusalem’s esteemed Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) in memory of his own father. The first petitioner read softly through barely stifled sobs, but I managed to catch the words two days later during the second mourner’s recitation and then found the text online:

אבינו שבשמים
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי, מאז עלייתו לגנזי מרומים ועד עתה
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי בשנה זו בכל כוחי ובכל מאודי
ועתה אני עומד לפניך נרגש ואומר: עשיתי ככל אשר ציוותנו
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן מנחה
אשא תחינה לפני כסא כבודך שיעלו כל תפילותיי לפניך לרצון
ותיטיב לאבי, הריני כפרת משכבו, את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך

לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

I also took the liberty of translating it:

Our Heavenly Father,
I was privileged to complete the recitation of Kaddish for the raising up of the soul of my father, my teacher, from his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until this moment.
I strove to honor my father this year with all my strength and all my might.
Now I stand before You emotionally and say: I have done as You commanded us.
At this moment, standing before You at mincha time,
I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall be brought before You and are acceptable to You for the good of my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place, his place in a world that is all good,
Among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world.

Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
And bind his soul in the bond of life.
God is his heritage;
May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

One’s kaddish journey must necessarily end. Inspired by Rabbi Lau, a tentative, personal prayer has cautiously started taking shape in my mind… perhaps I would recite some of it in Russian or English.

* * *

The final essay in Kaddish: Women’s Voices is titled ‘Ten Plus One, Two, Three…’ by Chana Reifman Zweiter who describes reciting kaddish for her father only three months after her final kaddish for her mother. At shul, I’ve met others who have recited kaddish almost consecutively for two or even three years… an endless, aching blur of grief.

The traditional Jewish mourning process has a designated end, and mourning must be kept in proportion; on these matters, Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah is clear (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11):

אין מספידין יתר על שנים עשר חדש We do not eulogize for more than twelve months.
אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדאי שנאמר אל תבכו למת ואל תנודו לו כלומר יתר מדאי שזהו מנהגו של עולם A person should not become excessively broken hearted because of a person’s death, as Jeremiah 22:10 states: “Do not weep for a dead man and do not shake your head because of him.” That means not to weep excessively. For death is the way of the world.

 

I fear the end of this year, but
I can’t keep this up forever.

* * *

Anyway, Zweiter alludes to a Mishnah in her essay, which now springs out in my mind (Brachot 4:4):

רבי אליעזר אומר, העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים Rabbi Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers keva, it is not a [genuine] supplication.

 

One of the classic dichotomies occupying Jewish educators the world over is the tension between keva-קבע (fixed religious requirements) and kavanah-כוונה (intention). I posit that if not for our People’s ages-old commitment to our Law (keva), no Jewish educators would be around for such a conversation. Yet it remains that I and countless others chafe at arbitrary and anachronistic restrictions and commandments, which are meaningless at their best and immoral at their worst. Ancient keva needs relevant, modern kavanah. The issue cannot be ignored, lest you lose us.

The Talmud, of course, seeks to understand the Mishnah’s use of the term keva. The rabbis do tend to aim for precision (Brachot 29b):

מאי קבע? א”ר יעקב בר אידי אמר רבי אושעיא כל שתפלתו דומה עליו כמשוי ורבנן אמרי כל מי שאינו אומרה בלשון תחנונים רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו כל שאינו יכול לחדש בה דבר What is meant by keva? — R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him. The Rabbis say: Whoever is not able to say it in the manner of supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.

 

Indeed, what do we mean by keva? As we see above, the Talmud presents us with three possibilities, and Rashi’s (1040-1105) dependable commentary awaits us on inner edge of the Talmud:

כמשוי. והיינו לשון קבע חוק קבוע הוא עלי להתפלל וצריך אני לצאת ידי חובתי 1 Like a heavy burden. And this is the language of “fixedness.” There is a “fixed” law upon me to pray. And I must fulfill my obligation.
מי שאינו יכול. לכוין לבו לשאול צרכיו 2 Whoever is not able to. To direct his heart to ask for his needs.
לחדש בה דבר. בבקשתו והיינו לשון קבע כיום כן אתמול כן מחר 3 Insert something fresh in it – in his request. And this is the language of “fixedness” – as today is, so was yesterday, so will be tomorrow.

 

These reflect three successive spiritual challenges on my journey [this year]:

  1. If prayer is but a heavy, fixed burden, the weight of endless, repetitive meaninglessness will suffocate my will. My resentment and sense of estrangement from tradition will render the kaddish journey intolerable. The aspiration: measured doses of keva; a balance between regular daily recitations and room for breath and thought.
  2. If I am unable to find and express myself in [any of] the prayers, I am reduced to the function of a cog in the machinery of Jewish tradition. The aspiration: understand myself; relate to [some of] the prayers; weave self and prayer together in my heart.
  3. If my kaddish journey is not dynamically self-aware, if my daily words are never my own, then this is not truly my process. The well-intentioned life of pure keva ultimately remains one of alienation from the self. I am a Jew; it’s true, but I am also this Jew (just as my father was).

* * *

Often, my father and I did not communicate well. He would accuse me of nitpicking at his words and missing his broader points, and I would accuse him of the same. Once, in a pleasant mood, I told him that I was content with my life and received a lecture on lacking for ambition. “You’re content? That is worrying. You shouldn’t be content – you should always be striving for something.”

Is peace an appropriate ambition for the soul? Peace can be a means or an end, a condition of activity or a condition of stillness. If peace is a means, then it is desirable so that the soul can work freely, without interference, and expend its energies only on what is significant to itself; but then the soul is not peaceful, the soul bustles and strains. Such peace is an external peace. But dare one aspire also to an internal peace, to peace as an end, to a peaceful soul? Or is the end of activity also the end of meaning?

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 318

I’ve caught myself on the thought recently that kaddish is not a peaceful process. My soul is not content; my mind is perpetually occupied, straining for understanding. I cull stories of my father from relatives, sifting through my memories, putting them to word and context. An “advantage” of dying before your time: people yet live who remember you.

At the recommendation of a dear cousin, I have reached out to my father’s close friend from his youth who lives still in Moscow. His name is also Alexander, but he goes by Sasha, rather than Shurik (like my father). Hopefully, we will speak soon. Once again, I’m thankful to be fluent in Russian.

* * *

A Loose End
(a tangent)

I found a quote (while reading in shul this morning) from Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), which I would have liked to include in blog post #18:

[Halakhic man’s] approach begins with an ideal construction and finishes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? – To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it in order to establish a relation between it and the real world… There is no phenomenon, being or creature to which the a priori Halakhah does not truly apply its ideal standard.

– “Ish HaHalakhah,” Talpiot 1, no. 3-4 (1944): 665.