More skeptic than kaddish

During my first year of mourning, as I recited the kaddish on a daily basis, exploring and reflecting upon this famous Jewish doxology, I had neither the time nor the bandwidth to do justice in my writings to all that I was learning and pondering.

Among the many tidbits that I omitted was the following: traditionally, parents would refer to their sons as ‘my kaddish’, which is to say that the son himself was his parents’ kaddish by virtue of the fact that he was expected to take the responsibility of reciting the mourner’s kaddish for his mother and father upon their deaths, thereby redeeming and/or elevating their souls. In fact, this use of the word ‘kaddish’ is still mainstream in the most religiously conservative Jewish communities today. I am Papa’s kaddish, and I am Mama’s kaddish.

I wanted to recite the kaddish for Papa every day that first year, as is traditionally expected of a bereaved son, but I truly didn’t know if I could make it through an entire year of daily prayer services because I didn’t believe in any of the mythological explanations behind this ancient tradition. Blogging the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series that year generated the fuel I needed.

Somewhat paradoxically, it also reinforced my religious skepticism.

* * *

When I first met Orthodox Jews as a student in college, I would hear them express the following: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish.” Here’s what they meant by this:

“There are no Jewish religious denominations because there is only one authentic version of Judaism, defined by the Torah and the mitzvot (Divine commandments). Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and even Orthodox Judaism are meaningless concepts. All that matters is God’s will, handed down to us by an unbroken tradition going all the way back to the Torah that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, and I am a follower of that tradition.”

Today, more than two decades later, I would also say: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish” – but I mean something quite different by this.

I present as a Zionist, Orthodox, Israeli Jew. If you were to meet me, you would see a bearded male with a kippah on his head and sandals on his feet. Further, my family keeps a kosher kitchen, and we keep the Sabbath in a traditional way. BUT: I don’t believe that God commanded us to do any of these things, and I may well perform actions that I know are against halakhah (Jewish law) in private.

Contrary to mainstream Orthodox Jewish thought, I recognize the validity of all Jewish denominations as expressions of many people’s Jewish identities. BUT: None of them are home to me. All are institutions, networks of institutions, or umbrellas of institutional networks. They all have in-groups and out-groups. They all espouse some ideas that I accept, and they all espouse other ideas that I flatly reject. I trust none of them.

But I will always remain a Jew.

* * *

It was empowering to honor Papa’s memory by reciting kaddish daily for a year, as Jewish tradition demands. However, it was more empowering to do so with integrity.

Since I’m ‘socially Orthodox’, so to speak, which means that I look like an Orthodox Jew, can go through the motions of Orthodox daily life well enough to ‘pass’ as Orthodox, and prefer Orthodox prayer services, one of the most difficult things about publishing my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series in a public forum was coming out to the world (and more importantly: to everyone who knows me) as a somebody who doesn’t buy into the doctrine maintained by his religious community.

Unexpectedly, the acceptance and support that I received from friends and role models in my community that year made a profoundly positive impact upon me. People whom I think highly of as humans and Jewish leaders gave me respect for my kaddish project, validating me. Not one suggested that my beliefs were unreasonable or wrong. Rather, they engaged me in conversations, relating to my views as a legitimate side to the ‘conversation’.

Over time, I increasingly came to feel that my voice was truly valid – that I had something worthwhile to contribute to our people’s conversation about our shared heritage. My confidence grew, and so too did my self-identification with religious skepticism. I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, become more of a believer over that course of that year. If anything, I only came to feel more strongly about my lack of conviction in the fulfillment of God’s will and in the likelihood of His involvement in our lives.

I certainly wasn’t reciting kaddish for God, and I wasn’t even reciting kaddish for Papa, who wouldn’t have cared about this mourning tradition in the slightest. I was doing it for myself – and that is the only reason that Papa would have wanted me to do so.

* * *

Papa’s first yahrzeit (Hebrew anniversary of his death) brought my first year of mourning to a close. Experientially, this felt like the true end of my year-long kaddish journey, and I was determined to mark it at shul with the community that had made space for my kaddish all that year. Also, by sheer coincidence, his first yahrzeit fell out on the Sabbath, which is the day when shul-goers traditionally sponsor and partake in communal kiddush after Saturday morning services.

I continued going to shul for some months after that, but once the rainy season began (i.e. the Israeli winter), my motivation to walk to shul every morning through the dark and the rain decreased dramatically, and I stopped. As I would have expected, my personal prayer practice also fell apart in the absence of my shul attendance.

My intention was to return to shul in the spring, but then COVID-19 broke out, and that never happened due to the nationwide lockdown. Even after the lockdown ended, prayer services were restricted to the patio outside, prayer-goers had to sit far apart from one another with masks on over their faces, and our weekly kiddushes were cancelled indefinitely. Self-centered person that I am, I didn’t want to bear any of these personal discomforts for the sake of community, and I continued to stay home.

Over the course of the past month, several members of our Saturday morning minyan, including myself, hosted kiddushes in honor of their departed parents in the park next to the synagogue, and I attended prayer services on those dates before joining these social gatherings. Otherwise, I’ve continued staying at home and my shul attendance has remained practically non-existent.

In the spirit of honesty, I must share that it didn’t take much to dissuade me from waking up early in the mornings in order to spend an hour on walking back and forth to shul and praying there with my community. If one doesn’t believe that God commanded him to act a particular way, it becomes difficult to find alternative motivations that are sufficiently compelling in the long-run, or so I find.

* * *

The candle that we lit for Papa’s yahrzeit

And… so… while I hosted a kiddush in Papa’s memory two Saturdays ago (July 11th), the actual date of the yahrzeit fell out on July 16th, which was last Thursday. I’d known this for some time, and I’d thought I would make my way to shul that morning in order to recite kaddish in his honor. This is traditionally done, for once the first year of mourning has ended, one only recites the mourner’s kaddish in honor of his loved once annually, on their yahrzeits.

On Wednesday evening, as we’d planned, the three of us went out to a local café for dinner and dessert. We deliberately picked one that our daughter enjoys because her Dedushka Shurik (my Papa) would have wanted us to enjoy ourselves – of this I am certain. When we returned home, just before sunset, we lit a yahrzeit candle in his memory, and we very deliberately spoke of our love for Papa and his love for us so that our daughter would understand the significance of the day and of preserving our memories of Papa.

That night, I was writing poetry late at night, and I realized that I was extremely tired. The idea of waking up very early in order to drag myself to shul felt more than unappealing to me. I weighed my options: A) wake up early and go to shul to recite kaddish, or B) wake up at a more reasonable hour and forgo the annual kaddish recitation.

I chose not to go to shul.

* * *

I have justifications, but by the standards of the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community, they are all inadequate. I did not honor my Papa publicly in my community on the anniversary of his death, as sons have traditionally done for their deceased parents for hundreds of years, as I could have despite the COVID-19 restrictions. Now, I will only have the opportunity to recite kaddish for Papa next year – on his next yahrzeit.

But… I don’t feel too bad about it. I feel sad, but I’m honestly not sure if I’m simply sad because two years have already passed since Papa’s death, or if I’m additionally sad that I didn’t recite kaddish for him this year. It’s hard for me to tell.

Papa certainly wouldn’t have cared about me reciting kaddish for him on his yahrzeit. If anything, as I’ve said, he would have appreciated the idea of his loved ones enjoying themselves in his memory. He may have even empathized with the inclination to light a candle in memory of a loved one (even though he would never have done so himself).

Also, I really don’t feel religiously obligated to recite kaddish because I don’t feel any religious obligation. As traditional as I am, almost nothing I do is for the sake of God or done because I think He expects it of me or cares about my actions.

So – without any premeditation – I marked Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit much like a secular Jew might… and while I’m not yet sure how I’ll feel myself inclined to mark Papa’s future yahrzeits, I know that he would, first and foremost, want me to do whatever I personally find most meaningful. He would agree with the obvious: all of our mourning practices are intended to bring comfort to the living.

Hey, look at me! I’m honoring Papa!

My second annual kiddush on Shabbat in memory of Papa was a success. Our early morning prayer community isn’t very big (because not a lot of people like waking up so early on Saturdays), and therefore our kiddushes are intimate affairs of twenty to thirty people. By those metrics, the attendance on Saturday was great. Some friends even showed up who had been unable to attend services beforehand, as did my rabbi.

In fact, I could tell that many of our kiddush regulars BCE (Before COVID-19 Era) were very happy to show up and enjoy the camaraderie with their friends. This is the way it used to be every week; this is the way it should be; this is the way we want it to be – now I know for certain that it’s not just me.

* * *

Papa, as I’ve written and said many a time before, did not stand on ceremony, nor need it. He wouldn’t have expected me, nor wanted me to host an annual kiddush in his honor, and I can’t truly claim that I did it for him – it was really for myself. At the event, I said as much, and I added that none of our traditions or rituals are necessary for us to be good people – that may be one of the truest lessons that I learned from both of my parents.

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel that all of my writing, my hosting of kiddushes, and my bringing attention to how I continue to honor Papa are largely to make myself look good in the eyes of others. On the other hand, A) that’s not my only motivation, B) I don’t know how else to memorialize him, and C) doing these things keeps me from slipping into a dark depression.

* * *

Yesterday I went out and purchased a memorial candle holder for Papa’s yahrzeit, which will be from Wednesday night to Thursday night this week.

Mama gave me the idea because she’d found a candle holder online made by the same artist. Hers is wooden and hand painted with an image of Jerusalem, which, for all of us, is a reminder of Papa’s great love for this holy city.

My candle holder is blue, which was Papa’s favorite color, as he once informed my daughter, and it’s made of metal – a different medium. I like the metal, unpainted pieces more than the wooden art, but that’s just a matter of taste.

This coming Wednesday evening, we will light the candle, and we’re thinking of going out to a local café for dinner and dessert. I want to do something that my daughter will remember, and this would be the first time that the three of us have gone out together since the COVID-19 pandemic first exploded back in March. Also, I think that Papa would be happy to know that we’re doing something fun together in his memory.

Hosting kiddush for Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit

I can use big words and use them well, but I’m also a childish creature and feel that the quality of my writing often conceals my smallness.

* * *

Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit (anniversary of death) is just around the corner. The official Hebrew date falls out on July 16th – next Thursday. This coming Shabbat morning (July 11th), I plan to host a small kiddush after Saturday morning services in the park.

In Israel, we may now be at the cusp of a 2nd lockdown due to COVID-19. Certainly, we’re in the midst of a 2nd wave, and the government has already implemented new restrictions, including further limits upon indoor and outdoor gatherings. Therefore, the morning prayer service this weekend has been limited to twenty people.

Now, technically, one need not attend the shacharit service in order to attend the kiddush afterwards; and I would be more than happy if friends were to stop by for kiddush, even if they were unable to attend the prayer service beforehand.

However, our community has rightfully compensated for the newly reimposed restrictions by holding multiple prayer services, beginning at staggered times. Therefore, some of my friends will be in the midst of their morning prayers during my little kiddush. Further (let’s be real), not many are likely to attend a Saturday morning kiddush at 8:30 in the morning if they haven’t already gotten up for services beforehand.

Beyond this, my little kiddush will not be announced by the community because official community kiddushes have been verboten since the pandemic broke out, back in March. There will certainly be some attendees at the prayer services who feel uncomfortable gathering for kiddush afterwards – even outside in the park.

I am fully expecting low attendance.

* * *

Given the circumstances, I should be thankful that a 2nd lockdown hasn’t been declared yet. I should be, and I am, thankful that I have this opportunity to host a kiddush in memory of Papa this year.

Also, I am doing my utmost to host a safe kiddush, taking the following precautions:

  • Kiddush will be held outside
  • All servings of food will be individually prepackaged
  • I will bring hand sanitizer to the kiddush

But… all of this amounts to a much more limited kiddush experience than I had last year, and I find myself feeling fairly deflated. I am truly sick and tired of the Coronavirus.

This is all so petty, and I so know it. While I kvetch here about not being able to host and enjoy a full-size kiddush with my prayer community, countless other people are worried for their very lives. Clearly, eloquent writing doesn’t make one an adult.

* * *

Well, I shall make the most if it.

There shall be whiskey, herring, cheese, and crackers; and I’ve made a preemptive attempt to maximize attendance by sending personal invitations to my friends.

As I said – I am thankful to have such an opportunity at all, given the ongoing pandemic…

I just wish this were under happier and healthier circumstances.

Absence makes

My friend Zvi’s recent, unexpected death shocked me, perhaps all the more so because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Counterintuitive, right? After all, death is all the rage in the news these days.

(Death, death, death… I’m actually sick of writing about it but can’t seem to get it out of my system.)

I derive a patently unfounded sense of security from seeing people on a regular basis. It’s as though my expectation that a friend will be at shul again next Saturday morning will somehow guarantee that incident.

These last two months, during the COVID-19 crisis, have left me waiting to return to my regular Shabbat morning minyan; waiting to see my friends there; waiting to socialize around the kiddush after services. My days and weeks have been blurring together, and I’ve been waiting for and holding on to my hope for a return to normalcy. It’s thus I maintain my sanity.

Whereas my irrational expectations once spanned only single weeks, they’ve now come to span an unknowable number of months. I can’t know when things will return to what they once were, but subconsciously I have been assuring myself that friends and family will be back where they once were when this blows over.

* * *

My father’s second yahrzeit (the 24th of Tammuz) will arrive in another two months, on Thursday, July 16. I am planning to lead services in shul that day so that I can lead the recitation of the orphan’s kaddish. Should a 2nd wave of Coronavirus crash over us, I may not have this opportunity.

Some months ago I signed up to sponsor the kiddush after my 6:45 AM Shabbat minyan in honor of Papa. That Sabbath falls on July 11th.

However, due to the ongoing crisis, our weekly kiddush has been cancelled for the past two months, even as prayer services resumed last weekend. At the onset of the crisis, I didn’t much mind attending services with no kiddush; partially because I hadn’t been expecting such a protracted lockdown, partially because I don’t attend minyan only for the kiddush, and partially because I wasn’t forgoing my personal kiddush.

O Self-absorption Self-absorption, wherefore art thou Self-absorption?

 * * *

Kiddush or no kiddush, I choose to not avoid thinking of Papa. Every memento pains me to look at, but I keep them. The only remaining bottle of whiskey I purchased before flying off for Papa’s funeral remains unopened. I wear his yarmulke every Shabbat and every other holiday. His this is here; his that is there; Papa’s effects are everywhere.

But I still want my kiddush.

Yes, my.

Let’s remain honest. I want my kiddush.

I want my one day of the year when it’s socially appropriate to talk publicly about my pain. I want at least a small group of people that I am fond of to note and appreciate that I am honoring my Papa. I want my day of socially acceptable mourning. I want the appropriate setting to mourn in.

Papa is dead, and he’s not coming back. I don’t feel his presence, and I don’t believe that he’s watching me from the sky. He’s gone. He won’t reappear when I host a kiddush, and he won’t be present when I recite the kaddish. He wouldn’t have been there in life, and he won’t be there in death, but I will be there.

I have been looking forward to seeing David the mourner at shul again since Papa’s first yahrzeit (blog #50). How will he look that day? What will he be able to share with me? For nearly a year, I’ve been living with the patently unfounded sense of security that I will see him again, but what if my plans get derailed? What if this hateful, pointless crisis denies me? What if David doesn’t make it?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 50

Papa’s first yahrzeit fell out on the Shabbat before last.
So… what did marking this date change for me?

* * *

Some things are inevitable.

Even before learning anything meaningful or interesting about the orphan’s kaddish, I knew that I would attend minyan every day to recite it for Papa.

I also knew that this would last for the duration of eleven months; that the process would inevitably end.

Throughout the year, I wrestled with the boundaries of tradition. Why must I stop reciting kaddish after eleven months (blog #21)? Should I? Will I? Why am I not considered a “mourner” during the thirteenth month of this Hebrew leap year, before the first anniversary of Papa’s death (blog #32)? How do I feel about this? Do I cease to consider myself a “mourner” after twelve months, without having marked Papa’s yahrzeit?

Still, from the first, I never struggled for a moment with the notion of hosting a kiddush at my early morning Shabbat minyan to commemorate Papa’s yahrzeit. On August 6, 2018, not even one month after my father’s death, I e-mailed the kiddush coordinator:

– May I reserve a date for July 2019?
~ Surely – just tell me which shabbat
– The last shabbat in July 2019
~ Booked!

Kiddush at shul was within my comfort zone; I could see the hints of its contours on the horizon all my kaddish year (blog #7).

* * *

In truth, the kiddush at shul is not considered a  Jewish mourning ritual in halakhic literature; but it has become commonly accepted; and, in some communities, expected.

Sponsoring this kiddush to commemorate the first anniversary of my Papa’s death must therefore be understood in the social context of the process that I went through this year in my community. It was not an isolated event.

Upon my father’s death, I opted in to the traditional Jewish mourning experience, grounded in ancient texts and customs. I would come to shul every day and be seen by the same, increasingly familiar faces; and over the course of my year I formed some new relationships and strengthened other bonds that had already existed. Countless times, I lifted a glass and recited blessings in honor of other people’s parents; I shared in their experiences and partook of their contributions to our community.

My kiddush for Papa marked the end of a chapter for me, of course, but it was also, simply: THANK YOU.

* * *

yahrzeit is a 24-hour commemorative experience. Many who do not otherwise attend shul regularly will nonetheless show up for the each of the three daily prayer services (evening, morning, afternoon) to say kaddish on a parent’s yahrzeit, along with the mourners who recite it daily. If one is marking a yahrzeit, he is given precedence in leading the prayers so that he may recite more kaddishes that day.

On Friday evening, I asked the gabbai for permission to lead the evening prayers after the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Then something within me trembled. As a mourner this year, I would never have made such a request! After all, according to Ashkenazi custom, mourners do not lead the services on Shabbat and festivals, as taught by Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572) (Yoreh De’ah 376:4):

האבלים אומרים קדיש אפילו בשבת ויו”ט (בא”ז בשם ר”י מקורביי”ל) אבל לא נהגו להתפלל בשבת ויו”ט (כן הוא בתשובת מהרי”ל) אע”פ שאין איסור בדבר The mourners say kaddish even on Shabbat and festivals (in the ‘Or Zarua’, [as is taught] in the name of Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil), but they do not lead the prayers on Shabbat and festivals (according to the responsa of Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin), even though there is no prohibition in this matter.

Over the course of my kaddish year, I became programmed in particular behavioral norms. As a mourner, I was encouraged to lead services – and I’d come to prefer that somebody in mourning (although preferably not me) would do so (blog #24). However, we mourners were never to lead services on Shabbat, for its atmosphere is one of joy; and ours is an air of grief.

* * *

My first orphan’s kaddish recitation that Friday evening after Kabbalat Shabbat tore through my chest cavity with the force of a whole year’s worth of daily doxologies. The muscles of my face knew every syllable intimately, but I was two months out of practice since my de-kaddish’ment. Anxiety gripped me, as I stumbled over one of the final phrases.

Then that first kaddish of Papa’s yahrzeit was over, and my heart was fluttering as I made my way to the dais to lead ma’ariv. I knew I wouldn’t be leading services again in his honor until the 24th of Tamuz the following year.

Standing at the center of the sanctuary, I draped a prayer shawl over my shoulders and breathed out heavily, centering myself. I would now lead the evening prayers so that I could recite every single blessing and kaddish, so that I could lead the orphan’s kaddish at the end…

According to tradition, I hadn’t been “in mourning” for the entirety of the previous month, and I hadn’t recited kaddish at shul for two months’ time, but somehow I’d never shaken myself out of my familiar mourner’s headspace…

That Shabbat evening, I led a service from the rostrum that no mourner would think to lead, in order that I could lead the mourners.

Against the joyous Shabbat backdrop, I grieved before the community.

* * *

Leading Shabbat services on Papa’s yahrzeit took some emotional preparation, but I’d been easing my way towards this moment for months; and I know the standard liturgy. Reading the Haftarah on Saturday morning after leading shacharit, however, was another matter entirely. I hadn’t done that since I was thirteen years old (blog #48).

I rehearsed at home over the course of the week, twice meeting for guidance and support with Rabbi Lockshin in the evenings. My printed copy of the Haftarah, which I read from at shul on Papa’s yahrzeit, was covered in highlighter markings. I wouldn’t have been able to even begin to chant it without my blue and green scribbles. Careful to at least pronounce the words correctly, I chanted the text to some tortured tune and recited the corresponding blessings.

Finally, it was over. I looked at the gabbai for confirmation.

– Am I done?
~ Yes, unless you want to lead Musaf.
– Oh no, that’s quite enough, thank you.

And then I was off to prepare for kiddush.

* * *

My wife and I had thought through the menu for our kiddush. There were four different kinds of herring, two sorts of cheese, and crackers (the kiddush staples). Everything else was in memory of Papa. My wife prepared my father’s favorite Olivier Salad, much like the one Mama had prepared for the unveiling (blog #44), as well as a delicious cake with chocolate cream and pineapple slices, which she’d always prepared for his visits to Israel (Papa and I both prefer creamy desserts). My wife, mother and daughter brought these just in time for the kiddush, which began at 8:30 in the morning.

I brought a bottle of AKASHI White Oak Blended Japanese Whiskey, which I’d purchased at the airport last summer on my way home for Papa’s funeral. It hadn’t been intended for this kiddush, but I hadn’t yet been able to open it. Also, I decided to bring a bottle of Beefeater Gin to mix with tonic water – this had been my father’s favorite drink. A bottle of orange juice and a big box of bourekas from Papa’s favorite local bakery rounded out the kiddush.

There was a second bottle of whiskey at the table, a majestic 18-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich brought by my Rav, Rabbi Landes. He had come to my minyan in continued support of me, and I was deeply moved by his presence at Kehillat Yedidya so early on a Shabbat morning.

Rabbi Landes graciously poured me a glass of Glenfiddich before I stood to recite kiddush for the community, but upon hearing my explanation for the bottle of AKASHI he ever so subtly poured me a second glass and switched the two while I was yet speaking. Later in the week, my Rav would call to provide me with further ‘chizúk’ (חיזוק) – encouragement. Thank you, Rabbi.

* * *

After returning home from shul that afternoon, I thought of several takeaways, based upon a conversation that ensued with Mama.

Firstly, I once again felt profoundly thankful that my mother had been able to join me for this capstone event, in support of my personal mourning process. Secondly, I was gratified to see that almost all of the kiddush food and drink had been obliterated by my little community. Despite their not knowing my Papa, their oneg Shabbat was brightened that morning because of our love for my father.

Thirdly, I was struck by the holy mundanity of communal kiddush.

* * *

The words ‘kaddish’ (קדיש) and ‘kiddush’ (קידוש) share a common Semitic root: Q-D-Š, meaning “holy” or “separate”.

The word ‘kaddish’ would seem to be an Aramaic word, meaning “holy”, and ‘kiddush’ is a Hebrew word, meaning “sanctification”. Having studied Spoken Arabic for several semesters, I’m also aware that the Arabic name for Jerusalem is ‘Al Quds’ (القدس), which means: “The holy [one].”

The very first line of kaddish, which I had been reciting all year is:

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba May His great name be exalted and sanctified.

In theory, the purpose of the kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat, by reciting a blessing over a cup of wine, but on that early morning of Papa’s yahrzeit I saw this communal ritual in a different light.

While the words of kiddush are of lofty, holy intent, perhaps it is the gathering together in community and the sharing of simple, human pleasures that truly sanctifies the Sabbath and sanctifies our loved ones’ yahrzeits. For me, on that morning, and perhaps on every single day that I had recited kaddish throughout the year, it was my community that warmly embraced me.

* * *

Words from Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish come back to me (p. 250):

Kaddish is not said for the dead,’ the rabbi said to me tonight. ‘It is said for the living.’ But the living have needed to believe that it is said for the dead; and so the plot thickens.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 48

I am no longer a “mourner” according to tradition, but am I no longer mourning? This is beyond me. Can one truly mourn forever, or does mourning inevitably decay into normalcy?

Less than one Hebrew month remains until my father’s first yahrzeit, thirteen months since his heart stopped for the second time at the hospital. Papa died on July 7, 2018 – on Shabbat* one year ago on the Gregorian calendar. However, the Hebrew anniversary of his death is the 24th of Tammuz (כ״ד בְּתַמּוּז), which will be on Shabbat, July 27, 2019. (From Sabbath to Sabbath.)

*I learned something:
According to the Tractate Shabbat 30a-b of the Babylonian Talmud, King David died on Shabbat afternoon. (see text at the bottom.)
According to the Zohar, we traditionally recite the Tzidkatcha prayer (צדקתך, “Your righeousness”) during mincha on Shabbat in memory of three individuals who died on Shabbat: Joseph, Moses and David.  

* * *

Lassitude

With eleven months of daily kaddish recitations and a twelfth month of additional mourning restrictions behind me, my grief’s sails have been hanging [un]expectedly limp these days.

I’ve mentioned to my friend Dov that I am worn out from grieving and have been feeling uninspired of late; he suggests that I submit a truncated blog post, writing just that. I check with the Times of Israel blog editors: would that be acceptable to them? Deputy Editor Anne Gordon responds:

There’s no specific minimum, and in your case, we’re not worried, especially given that you’re posting [in] the context of everything else. Use your judgement. We trust you

I almost did it -almost posted nothing more than the words above- but our family happened to be moving into a new apartment last week, and time evaporated in the balagan (בלגן) that ensued.

* * *

Equilibrium

Weary from the move, I didn’t go to shul for several days last week so I brought my tefilin home one evening, intending to pray by myself.

Ultimately, I didn’t even put them on.

Sometimes I feel the need to reboot, and this is such a time. It’s an occasionally much needed reminder to myself that commitment to tradition is a choice.

… it is I who am granting our religion authority.

– Me, blog #6

Understand authority and you have crippled it.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 113

This week, I won’t be able to attend my weekday morning minyan, as my wife will be abroad, and I cannot leave our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter alone at home by herself. Perhaps I will get back into the groove of davening on my own. We’ll see.

* * *

Humility

My new landlord lost his father when he was but fourteen years old and spent that year of his childhood reciting kaddish at shul. I’m almost forty years old; his was a different experience.

Also, I’ve noted that the same eccentric gentleman who had once (until January – blog #24) regularly led the ma’ariv prayer on Saturday evenings at the close of Shabbat in honor of his father is now back at the rostrum. It turns out that his mother passed away some two months ago. Losing two parents in quick succession is another experience.

Reflecting upon these and other stories of loss that I’ve encountered, I recall a piece of wisdom from Sherri Mandell who lost her thirteen-year-old son Kobi to Arab terrorists in 2001 [link]:

Humility means that I recognize that one day even grieving will assume its proper proportion. In time, I will learn to give death its measure, and no more.

These words are directly from the chapter titled ‘Humility’ in Sherri’s book: Blessing of a Broken Heart.

* * *

Denouement

Papa’s yahrzeit is imminent. With kaddish recitations no longer drawing me to shul, my thoughts turn towards the kiddush I will sponsor after my Shabbat morning minyan. By coincidence*, it turns out that Mama will be in Israel then; she will stay with us for Shabbat and come to shul for the kiddush.

*A pious friend tells me that there are no coincidences. I tell her that the title of ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ is much more true to my nature than ‘The Believer’s Kaddish’ ever could have been. Also, it sounds more intriguing.

What traditions are associated with the yahrzeit? There aren’t many. I already know, of course, of yahrzeit candles. Apparently, this tradition goes all the way back to Talmudic times, as the rabbis ruled that one may not use the “candle for the dead” for the havdalah ceremony, performed upon the departure of the Sabbath (B.T., Tractate Brachot 53a):

אין מברכין לא על הנר ולא על הבשמים של מתים The blessings [for havdalah] may not be recited over the candle or the spices of the dead.

I also know that it is considered appropriate to donate to charity and study Torah on the date of a yahrzeit, but I wonder if there’s something more in our tradition. From the Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955), I learn that there is also an ancient tradition of fasting on a parent’s yahrzeit, but further research suggests that this practice has mostly fallen into disuse. Regardless, we do not fast on Shabbat, which is a day of holy pleasure.

Then, by chance, my friend Aytan asks me if I’d like to read the haftarah portion on Papa’s yahrzeit.
What? Why?
I’m not entirely sure, but that’s the tradition.
Interesting! I’ll do some research on this.
Of course you will.

Chabad renders any “research” entirely unnecessary: a thorough answer can be found on their website.

* * *

Challenge

I haven’t read haftarah since my bar mitzvah nearly 27 years ago. I am… terrified?

Perhaps that’s too strong a word, but the performative aspects of Judaism have never been my strong suit. Even publicizing my intention to attempt this scares me – it may raise expectations that I may not be able to meet. Still… I will give it my all.

After all, I’ve come this far, haven’t I?

* * *

Memory

Memories of my bar mitzvah come back to me. I remember having no idea what a haftarah was, but I knew that I was expected to read it. Perhaps it was considered “half” as important as the “Torah”? Nobody thought to clarify this for me back then.

I remember chanting one of the kaddishes to the wrong tune; but I pushed my way through it. The rabbi, of course, noticed and remarked upon it later (in the spirit of constructive criticism).

I remember writing my bar mitzvah speech based upon my father’s reading of the weekly Torah portion. He drew a connection to the theme of family and progeny, and I spoke about being the first Bogomolny in several generations to celebrate his bar mitzvah, even as my grandparents sat in the front row before me. They had emigrated from the FSU only several years before, and I don’t think their English was strong enough to understand me.

I remember receiving many earnest compliments from the regular shul-goers in regards to my speech. It had been wordsmithed by me, but it had been inspired by my Papa.

* * *

Understatement

My father’s fingerprints are all over me.

* * *

Shabbat 30a-b

אמר לו בשבת תמות אמות באחד בשבת אמר לו כבר הגיע מלכות שלמה בנך ואין מלכות נוגעת בחברתה אפי’ כמלא נימא אמות בערב שבת אמר לו (תהילים פד) כי טוב יום בחצריך מאלף טוב לי יום אחד שאתה יושב ועוסק בתורה מאלף עולות שעתיד שלמה בנך להקריב לפני על גבי המזבח Said He [God] to him [David]. ‘Thou wilt die on the Sabbath.’ ‘Let me die on the first day of the week!’ ‘The reign of thy son Solomon shall already have become due, and one reign may not overlap another even by a hairbreadth.’ ‘Then let me die on the eve of the Sabbath!’ Said He, ‘For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand’ (Psalms 84): better is to Me the one day that thou sittest and engagest in learning than the thousand burnt-offerings which thy son Solomon is destined to sacrifice before Me on the altar.’
כל יומא דשבתא הוה יתיב וגריס כולי יומא ההוא יומא דבעי למינח נפשיה קם מלאך המות קמיה ולא יכיל ליה דלא הוה פסק פומיה מגירסא אמר מאי אעביד ליה הוה ליה בוסתנא אחורי ביתיה אתא מלאך המות סליק ובחיש באילני נפק למיחזי הוה סליק בדרגא איפחית דרגא מתותיה אישתיק ונח נפשיה Every Sabbath day he would sit and study all day. On the day that his soul was to be at rest, the Angel of death stood before him but could not prevail against him, because learning did not cease from his mouth. ‘What shall I do to him?’ said he. Now, there was a garden before his house; so the Angel of death went, ascended and soughed in the trees. He [David] went out to see: as he was ascending the ladder, it broke under him. Thereupon he became silent [from his studies] and his soul had repose.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 38

My friend Dave from my beloved Shabbat early morning minyan stopped me recently. “I won’t be in Israel for your father’s yahrtzeit kiddush. I’m sorry.”

I blinked.

My father’s first yahrtzeit isn’t until the end of July (four months away), and other than a passing mention (blog #7) in my writing, I haven’t spoken much of it to anyone. “That’s okay. Thanks for telling me.”

The following week, after reflecting upon it, I stopped him. “Thank you for what you said last week. I have no expectations that anyone in particular will attend the kiddush, but it’s moving that you cared enough to check the date. That means more to me than somebody being there by happenstance.”

* * *

Most kiddushes are in memory of loved ones (usually one’s parents), but not always. Four years ago, we held our daughter’s naming at my minyan and sponsored the kiddush afterwards. Until that morning, I hadn’t had a special date to mark. Back then, I wasn’t in the “club” yet.

For me, the cozy kiddush is an integral part of my early morning minyan experience. Most people are disinclined to wake up for services at 6:45 AM; we are a small group, and our kiddush is intimate. During my most recent three year crisis period, when I wasn’t attending services, I felt a constant sense of loss for the camaraderie of that minyan; every e-mail I received from our kiddush coordinator bruised me anew.

Unexpectedly, the kiddush coordinator now happens to be moving away quite soon; I was at shul last week for his final kiddush, wished him well… and volunteered to take his place. Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) wrote: Every end is the beginning of something new.

Omni fine initium novum.

* * *

These Latin words bring me back to a favorite anecdote of Papa’s.

When we moved from Jerusalem to Columbus, Ohio in 1981, my father purchased his first car in North America: a used, white Ford Fairmont. As my father drove off the car lot with his wife, young son and several suitcases (essentially all that he owned in the world), he recalled a phrase, which Cicero (106–43 BCE) attributed to the Greek sage Bias of Priene (6th century BCE):

Omnia mea mecum porto.

The perfect aptness of this quote at that precise moment of his life would never cease to amuse him.

* * *

I had initially intended to be done with my study of Psalm 119 after completing stanza ר (resh), which corresponds the final letter of Papa’s name (Alexander), but that end only brought me to the realization of a new, necessary beginning, for my father was actually Alexander Ben Mosheh (son of Moisey).

Not to worry, I told myself. That’s only four additional stanzas. You can do it.

By chance, it happens that the first of these four additional stanzas is ב (bet), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which follows א (alef):

Wikipedia points out that ‘the grounds for the [Psalm] are established in the first two stanzas (alef and beth): the Torah is held up as a source of blessing and right conduct, and the psalmist pledges to dedicate himself to the law.’

– Me, blog #31

So here I am again – back at Psalm 119’s beginning –

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ב (verses 9-16)

[CLICK for glossary]

ט בַּמֶּה יְזַכֶּה-נַּעַר, אֶת-אָרְחוֹ— לִשְׁמֹר, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 9 How can a youth make his way pure? By observing according to Thy dvar.
י בְּכָל-לִבִּי דְרַשְׁתִּיךָ; אַל-תַּשְׁגֵּנִי, מִמִּצְוֺתֶיךָ 10 With all my heart have I sought Thee; do not cause me to stray from Thy mitzvot.
יא בְּלִבִּי, צָפַנְתִּי אִמְרָתֶךָ— לְמַעַן, לֹא אֶחֱטָא-לָךְ 11 Thy imrah have I treasured in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.
יב בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהוָה– לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ 12 Blessed art Thou, O Lord; teach me Thy hukim.
יג בִּשְׂפָתַי סִפַּרְתִּי– כֹּל, מִשְׁפְּטֵי-פִיךָ 13 With my lips have I told all the mishpatim of Thy mouth.
יד בְּדֶרֶךְ עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ שַׂשְׂתִּי– כְּעַל כָּל-הוֹן 14 I have rejoiced in the derekh of Thy eidot as much as in all riches.
טו בְּפִקּוּדֶיךָ אָשִׂיחָה; וְאַבִּיטָה, אֹרְחֹתֶיךָ 15 I will speak of Thy pikudim and look upon Thy ways.
טז בְּחֻקֹּתֶיךָ אֶשְׁתַּעֲשָׁע; לֹא אֶשְׁכַּח דְּבָרֶךָ 16 I will delight myself in Thy hukim; I will not forget Thy dvar.

The ArtScroll Book of Psalms (p. 537) highlights the connection between stanzas א and ב:

In the initial series of eight verses beginning with the letter א, the Psalmist discussed the highest priorities of Jewish life; i.e., the establishment of values, standards, and goals in accordance with the spirit of Torah and mitzvos… [In stanza ב,] the Psalmist queries… how can we assure the young and inexperienced student… that he will not be led astray…?

It bears noting that the medieval exegetes themselves read stanzas א and ב together thematically. The Ibn Ezra (1089–1167), for example, saw the first verse of ב as connected directly to the final verse of א:

במה – … לפי דעתי: שהוא קשור בפסוק העליון שאמר: את חקיך אשמור, אף על פי שלא אוכל לשמרם כראוי כדברך “How” – … according to my opinion: this [verse] is connected to the verse above, which says: “I will observe Thy hukim” (verse 8); even though I will not be able to observe them as appropriate, according to “Your dvar” (verse 9).

* * *

Our current stanza follows upon the uplifting tone of the first. Most of stanza ב is an expression of the Psalmist’s dedication to God’s commandments; the challenges he mentions are only A) potential, and B) from within, as we see in verses 10 & 11.

The Psalmist may stray from God’s commandments (10).
The Psalmist may sin against God (11).

As a modern, the wording of verse 10 actually bothers me at first blush: “אַל-תַּשְׁגֵּנִי” – “do not cause me to stray”. Nobody causes me to stray – I take full responsibility. Also: why would God deliberately have me sin? Surely He didn’t create all for mere sport? Unsurprisingly, the medieval commentators also perceive this ambiguity in the text and offer some clarity: God knows the Psalmist’s heart, and will help the Psalmist avoid straying.

(One may notice that each of the verses (10 & 11) that makes mention of the Psalmist’s potential challenges refers also to his heart, with which he seeks God and keeps His imrah safely hidden.)

אבן עזרא: בכל – אתה תדע כל לבי ואתה עזרני שלא אשגה Ibn Ezra (1089–1167): With all [my heart] – You shall know my whole heart, and You shall help me not to stray.
רד״ק: בכל לבי … עזרני להבין ולעשותם. ואמר תשגני, כיון שבידו לתת החכמה והבינה Radak (1160–1235): With all my heart … help me to understand and perform them. And it says ’cause me to stray’, for it is in His hand to give me intelligence and wisdom.
הרב אלטשולר: אל תשגני – … תן בלבי בינה להבין על בוריה Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769): Do not cause me to stray – … give wisdom to my heart to understand inside and out.

Thankfully, free will has its champions.

* * *

Another word in stanza ב grabs me: אֹרַח (orakh) – way (of life), style, manner.

I begin my review of the stanza by scanning for repeating words and keywords from Radak’s glossary. The Psalmist makes a clever play in his use of the term orakh, which is found in verses 9 & 15, drawing a connection between the “way” of a youth (9) and the “ways” of God (15).

This wouldn’t be remarkable, except that one of the Radak’s keywords for Psalm 119 is a synonym for orakh, and this keyword was itself repeated three times in stanza א (alef), as well as once in our current stanza. The synonym is derekh – דֶרֶך.

Not only could the Psalmist have opted for the word derekh in our current stanza (ב) instead of orakh, but if these terms are indeed synonymous, why didn’t he make use of the term orakh (which begins with ‘א’) in the previous stanza (א) instead of stanza ב?

In other words, why is the Psalmist making repeated use of a synonym for one of Psalm 119’s most oft-used keywords in these particular verses?

* * *

Back to my trusty BDB Dictionary.
What nuance am I missing?

The verb forms of these words may be instructive.
Let’s take a look at their connotations:

ד-ר-ך vb. tread, march
א-ר-ח vb. wander, journey, go

Interesting.

It would seem that while both of these biblical terms mean ‘way’, they represent different aspects of this concept. Derekh represents a steadiness of movement. Orakh represents aimlessness and unpredictability, hinting of adventure. Indeed, orakh is a perfect word to describe the ‘way’ of a youth (verse 9), unsure of his future and potential, exploring, learning, wandering.

Actually, this only sharpens my point further:

Orakh may be an appropriate description for the ‘way’ of a youth, but what is the implication of God’s orkhim (plural) in verse 15? It’s not as though the Psalmist couldn’t use the word derekh in stanza ב. In fact, he did (verse 14). So… why not stick with that more fitting ascription to God, especially as derekh is one of Psalm 119’s oft-repeated keywords? On this, the medievals were silent.

Could the Psalmist’s God be wandering and wondering?

* * *

In Jewish tradition, it is said that three partners bring you into the world: your mother, your father, and God. Also, among God’s many honorifics, we refer to Him in traditional prayers as ‘Our Father’.

As children,
learning the ways of the world,
we rely upon our parents’ constancy.
We assume that they are settled in dependable drakhim.
But…
If we can imagine a God who wanders…
Surely our mothers and fathers are wandering too?

When my father purchased his used Ford Fairmont back in 1981, fresh off the plane from Israel with his wife, child, and earthly belongings in tow, he was embarking on an adventure. Little was certain, but my parents only intended to live in America for a year or two – no more. Instead, we ended up moving to Iowa and eventually to New Jersey. At some point, the discussions of returning to Israel faded.

Today, as an adult and as a parent myself, life remains to me – an unfolding and unknowable journey.