Blemished mourning

Through the cracks

After Papa died in the summer of 2018, I was intent on chronicling my year of mourning as thoroughly as possible; but, unavoidably, many of my kaddish experiences fell through the cracks between my blog posts… I had neither the bandwidth nor the time necessary to cover every significant moment.

Each kaddish blog post of mine took on a life of its own. I would begin by recording some preliminary thoughts and then allow my reflections on the Jewish texts I’d been exploring to guide my hands across the keyboard. Usually, I would reach “the end” of every blog post upon realizing that it was complete… but there was always, always more to be written.

That’s part of why I’m blogging to this day.

Week after week I remember telling myself that I would include those inevitably omitted moments in future blog posts… but I could never quite keep up with life, and my project was, naturally, limited to my one year of mourning.

Admittedly, there were certain things that I was uncomfortable sharing publicly during that painful period, such as my decision not to recite kaddish for Babushka, my mother’s mother, who died several months after my Papa did… And some of those reflections, perhaps, I will never share.

There was one particular incident, however, that I very much did want to reflect upon in my Skeptic’s Kaddish series, which I never got around to because of timing.


Jewish tradition

The traditional Jewish mourning period for a parent is twelve Hebrew months, unlike the mourning period for other immediate family members, which lasts for only thirty days.

The first seven days after the funeral are known as the shiva, and these are the most restrictive days. Mourners stay at home during that period, seated on low stools and accepting visitors who come to comfort them. Following is the remainder of the first 30 days, called shloshim (literally: thirty), during which many restrictions remain, including not shaving and not getting a haircut.

After the shloshim, those mourning a parent continue reciting the mourner’s kaddish daily in a prayer quorum, usually for a total of eleven months, and several restrictions remain. These include not purchasing new clothing; not attending celebratory events; and not listening to live music.


The blemish

I had no difficulty in avoiding the purchase of new clothing, and I was mindful to avoid attending celebratory events. For example, my friend Arielle’s son Lavie was born during my kaddish year, and while I was excited to attend his ritual circumcision, I dutifully departed before the celebratory meal that followed.

Throughout the course of that year, I thought through potential challenges to my mourning practices in advance, and I conscientiously avoided missteps. The family outing that led to my mistake had been entirely unplanned.

Israel Independence Day, a Spring holiday, was several days before my flight to America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone in May 2019. We’d had no particular plans to celebrate, beyond watching the fireworks from afar and enjoying a family dinner at home, but my wife spontaneously suggested that we take our then 4¼-year-old daughter to watch the fireworks up close.

We were concerned because of the late hour but somehow managed to coax her into taking an afternoon nap so that she wouldn’t be overtired at night; then we were off, with her perched upon my shoulders.

My Jerusalem stone

At the time, I was also very preoccupied with the upcoming unveiling. In fact, when we arrived at Papa’s beloved Promenade for the fireworks, I took that opportunity to search for a Jerusalem stone, thinking about how I might place it atop his tombstone in a few days time.

This took place during my eleventh and final month of daily kaddish recitations, and I was emotionally and physically worn out. When the renowned Shalva Band, a group of disabled musicians, started playing beneath the fireworks, I was pleased to see them live, for I’d read so much about them in the press; and when the lead singer, a blind woman, joked that we would have to describe the fireworks display to her, I recall being very amused.


My realization

Days later, at home with my brother and my mother in New Jersey, it hit me. I had accidentally listened to live music during my year of mourning.

My brother and I were downstairs in the basement, discussing Jewish mourning traditions, when it dawned on me; I actually needed a minute to process this realization. “Oh…. shit.” In truth, I didn’t have any feelings of guilt because my error had been inadvertent; and I knew that I had been trying my best. Still, I did experience a pang of regret over having blemished my year of mourning… after having invested so much of myself in prayer, study, and tradition.


Today

Today, I find myself thankful for this memory… It has become one of many that I continue to reflect upon; and in retrospect, I’m actually pleased that my year of mourning for Papa was imperfect – because that is a reflection of myself.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 51

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended (blog #45); then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition (#48); and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months (#50). Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ (#51).

51 is a pentagonal number.

I inherited an affinity for numbers and their attributes from Papa.

* * *

‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ series was my undesigned response to the death of my father and to my process of returning to synagogue attendance, after a troubled three year absence, to recite the orphan’s kaddish daily for my Papa. The intensity of this experience suffused and shaped my life this year from the very start.

At different points, two trusted mentors, one an Orthodox rabbi and one a Reform rabbi, gave me like-minded feedback:
O: “You’re addicted to publishing.”
R: “This is an obsession for you.”

True, I mused, but ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ was hardly some quick fix. Every blog post was born of days of feeling and thinking. I prayed and participated; I read and reflected; I consulted and considered, I wrote and reworked. The ideas, the sources, and the words mattered; their precision and their placement; their significance and their sounds. Mine was, perhaps, an addiction to intention; an obsession with process.

Waves of emotions battered me, driven harder by the winds of self-discovery. At times I wanted to abandon ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’; to quit shul again; to burn all of Papa’s personal effects (blog #15) to ash so that I wouldn’t be reminded of him.

I would re-read every single blog post numerous times after publishing, disbelieving that I had lived it. The words on the screen rendered my internal mourning processes undeniable, and I would scan
them
over –
and over
again. Had I truly
felt that way? Did I
still? Eventually, I
didn’t, and I’d be
driven to
write –
again.

* * *

The year’s moments were boundless for me, spliced and looping through reels of punctuation that recorded and projected my experiences. Looking back at it now, I can identify most of my reasons for dedicating myself to this project (I’m sure others will come to me).

As I see it, I embarked upon my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ odyssey for: 1) myself, 2) my father, 3) my family, 4) Jewish tradition. (Arguably, the adventure was wholly for my personal benefit, as my loves for my father, my family, and Jewish tradition are but reflections of my values.)

For myself

1. Processing: I was in shock; and I needed to explore and express my thoughts and feelings. It felt surreal to go through my days as if no catastrophe had occurred. Other than my daily minyan attendance, my day-to-day life hadn’t changed after Papa’s death, until I began writing ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’.
2. Consistency: I wanted my outside to reflect my inside. Acting as if I remained the person I had been before Papa died felt to me acutely unnatural. Also, presenting myself as a Jew of faith praying within his religious community felt deceitful.
3. Connection: I needed emotional support, and I sought connection with others who themselves have struggled with faith and other facets of their Jewish identities.
4. Curiosity: Upon committing myself to the traditional year of mourning, it became important for me to learn about the history and meaning of the mourner’s kaddish, other Jewish mourning rituals, and Jewish eschatology.
5. Pride: I derived no small amount of satisfaction from the challenge of producing blog posts for ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’. I felt confident in my research and writing skills, as well as in my familiarity with the rudiments of Jewish texts and traditions.

For Papa

1. Create: I wanted to create something unique and special in honor of Papa, which I feel he would have been proud of.
2. Remember: I felt it important to prompt myself and others to think about him and reflect upon our memories of him.

For my Family

1. Present: I felt surreally distant from my mother and brother across the ocean after I returned home to Israel from the funeral and shiva, and I wanted to connect with them by sharing my personal mourning experience.
2. Future: After I’d been writing for some months (blog #27), I began to think of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ as a family memoir of sorts – for my daughter and future children. I do hope my child(ren) will find value in the fruits of this endeavor.

For Jewish tradition

1. The skeptics: There are many like me who are drawn to Jewish tradition but don’t necessarily buy into all of the religious dogma – I wanted to give a voice to this group.
2. The lay people: I wanted to spread knowledge and understanding of Jewish mourning traditions among those (like myself) who hardly knew anything about them.

* * *

I wanted to give kaddish a chance out of love and respect. ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ blog series made this possible. The Jewish wisdom of ages comes down to us through our texts and traditions, but no small fraction of it is alienating to modern minds. My public exploration and exposition of ancient and contemporary texts, recorded here, is a reflection of the tension between one modern Jew’s love for his people’s noble heritage and his respect for his own faculty of reason.

The famous Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929) addressed this issue of Jewish study in a modern reality. In the book ‘On Jewish Learning’ Rosenzweig asserts that we moderns must, of necessity, turn to a new paradigm of Jewish learning (p. 98-99):

A new ‘learning’ is about to be born – rather, it has been born.

It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time.

It is a sign of the time because it is the mark of the men of the time. There is no one today who is not alienated, or who does not contain within himself some small fraction of alienation. All of us to whom Judaism, to whom being a Jew, has again become the pivot of our lives – and I know that in saying this I am not speaking for myself alone – we all know that in being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.

This is a new sort of learning. A learning for which – in these days – he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien. That is to say, not the man specializing in Jewish matters; or, if he happens to be such a specialist, he will succeed, not in the capacity of a specialist, but only as one who, too, is alienated, as one who is groping his way home.

It’s a long quote, I know, but how I savor it!

* * *

Franz Rosenzweig died at the young age of 42, as did the great Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530 – 1572), whom I’ve cited throughout my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ series on the halakhot and minhagim of reciting kaddish as a mourner.

In my ceaseless, frenetic kaddish searching, I came across the 1989 song ‘Kaddish’ by Ofra Haza (1957 – 2000), who became the most internationally successful Israeli songstress of all time. Her voice pierces through a part of my soul that had been hitherto unknown to me, as I listen to her ‘Kaddish’ again and again and again and again and again. Enchanted, I read her biography, and realize… she also died at the age of 42.

42 is a pronic number.

Death and numbers stimulate my imagination.

* * *

I wonder if my father would have enjoyed Ofra’s music, given his severe hearing impairment (blog #19). In May, when I was in America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone (blog #44), Mama intentionally played Frank Sinatra songs in her car on our way to the cemetery. My father had been very fond of Sinatra; the Sultan of Swoon would often keep us company in the car because his voice was crisp enough for Papa to decipher and appreciate, despite the perpetual rattling in his one semi-functional ear.

Almost daily I continue to be reminded of Papa at unexpected moments. The hues of the sky and trees shift in the mornings when I squint in the Jerusalem sun, closing one eye and then the other. Each of my eyes perceives a different color spectrum, one bold, the other subdued. Then I remember my father’s partial color blindness and wonder, what colors did Papa see?

Yesterday I made a paper airplane for my daughter for the first time, just like Papa taught me to make. It’s a design with a blunt nose, sturdier than its pointy-nosed cousins. I remember building a virtual fleet of airplanes out of magazine postcards and launching them throughout the house in my excitement. Searching for my squadron units afterwards was a great part of the fun.

* * *

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended; then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition; and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months. Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’.

But I still go on.

* * *

Fin.

give-grief-words

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 35

My kaddish journey has been uneventful recently. I’ve settled into my commitment, and the days are going by.

On Tuesday, I saw a poster on the building opposite ours indicating that a neighbor had just died. She was a very elderly woman who would often sit on the patio between our buildings in the sunshine. She always waved to our 4-year-old daughter, beckoning to her with a smile of pure joy. Through our limited interactions we came to learn her name: Zohara.

It was clear that Zohara’s health had been failing, and she was noticeably quite frail. She usually sat alone, save for her Filipina caregiver, although some of our other neighbors would occasionally stop to chat with her. Last Sunday, I waved to her in the afternoon as I made my way to pick up our daughter from preschool, noting the oxygen tube in her nose. Zohara was no longer sitting in the sunshine when we returned home.

The announcement, therefore, did not surprise me. (Also, ever since Papa died, I’ve come to perceive death everywhere and hovering just behind every one of us.)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote (blog #30):

From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

It’s true, but the permanence of death continues to unsettle my human sensibilities. Infinity may be of moments, but I experience only one.

Unlike us, the Torah has spanned countless, rippling moments, and its words have been taught in each. In our surging flow, however, the challenges are increasingly defying dry instruction. The Torah, for its own sake and perhaps for the sake of humanity, is called to answer every moment, but the questions pour out without end.

I once sought answers for my moment, but only questions last.

* * *

Recently, I’ve taken to listening to some modern religious music, and the sheer optimism of the God-oriented lyrics cheers me. How much more so for those who believe the answers?

Modern Israeli musicians often include bible verses in their songs, whether they’re religious or not. Hebrew is the holy tongue, after all; and 80% of Israelis believe in God (see: the 2012 AVI CHAI Israel report) so the lines are meant to resonate with the audience.

As I research various Jewish themes for my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series, I come across songs that move me. This week, I came across a haunting song (see above) by Israeli vocalist Zehava Ben, which she put out nearly thirty years ago. The lyrics are simply the first two lines (verses 105-106) of stanza נ (nun) of Psalm 119, which I am studying now in Papa’s memory.

In fact, it turns out that verse 105 was also popularized throughout the Christian world by Amy Grant’s song ‘Thy Word’, which has since been covered by many, many others: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path ♪♫

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:נ (verses 105-112)

[CLICK for glossary]

נ-A

קה נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר, לִנְתִיבָתִי 105 Thy dvar is an oil lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
קו נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי וָאֲקַיֵּמָה– לִשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 106 I have sworn and have fulfilled it, to observe Thy righteous mishpatim.
קז נַעֲנֵיתִי עַד-מְאֹד; יְהוָה, חַיֵּנִי כִדְבָרֶךָ 107 I am afflicted very much; sustain me, O Lord, according to Thy dvar.
קח נִדְבוֹת פִּי, רְצֵה-נָא יְהוָה; וּמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לַמְּדֵנִי 108 Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth, O Lord, and teach me Thine mishpatim.

נ-B

קט נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד; וְתוֹרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 109 My life is always in my hand; and I have not forgotten Thy Torah.
קי נָתְנוּ רְשָׁעִים פַּח לִי; וּמִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ, לֹא תָעִיתִי 110 The wicked have laid a snare for me; anI went not astray from Thy pikudim.
קיא נָחַלְתִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ לְעוֹלָם: כִּי-שְׂשׂוֹן לִבִּי הֵמָּה 111 Thy eidot have I taken as a heritage for ever; for they are the rejoicing of my heart.
קיב נָטִיתִי לִבִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת חֻקֶּיךָ– לְעוֹלָם עֵקֶב 112 I have inclined my heart to perform Thy hukim for ever, eikev.

Stanza נ (nun) can easily be broken apart into two semi-stanzas; I call them נ-A (105-108) and נ-B (109-112). These two follow different poetic patterns, which distinguish them, but they are also bound to one another at the ends, as I will explain below.

* * *

נ-A (105-108)

The first semi-stanza is made distinct by its repetition of two particular keywords that Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak, 1160–1235) identifies in his glossary for Psalm 119: dvar (verses 105, 107) and mishpatim (106, 108). The structure of נ-A’s alternating verses, according to their keywords, is: 1,2-1,2.

105-106

The imagery of verse 105 (‘an oil lamp unto my feet’) is one of the Psalmist walking through the darkness, afraid to stumble, but reassured by the glow of God’s dvar. Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) paints the picture in his ‘Metzudat David’ commentary:

נר לרגלי. כמו הנר מציל הוא בחשכת הלילה מכל מכשול לבל תגוף הרגל An oil lamp unto my feet. [It is] like the oil lamp saves him in the darkness of night from every obstacle [before him] in order that his foot not be hurt.

Regardless of his trying circumstances, the Psalmist has sworn to uphold God’s mishpatim (verse 106). The commentators consistently write that intensifying one’s commitment to God’s commandments by personal oath serves to whet one’s motivation. The ‘Metzudat David’ explains:

נשבעתי וגו׳. רצונו לומר, כדי לזרז את עצמי נשבעתי לשמר וגו׳, וקיימתי את השבועה I have sworn, etc. This means to say: in order to motivate myself I have sworn to observe, etc., and I fulfilled the oath.

107-108

Verses 107-108 follow the themes of 105-106, but now the Psalmist sounds markedly less assured.

Whereas he had been walking through darkness, he’d had God’s dvar to guide him. Now (verse 107) the Psalmist feels afflicted, hoping humbly for the fulfillment of the holy dvar (word, promise). Rashi (1040-1105) and Radak both suggest that the Psalmist is afflicted to the point of near death. One wonders about the transition between verses 105 and 107.

Verse 108 reflects this same shift. Whereas the Psalmist in verse 106 spoke confidently of his deliberate commitment to God’s mishpatim, two verses later he’s suddenly unsure of himself: ‘Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth’. Whereas at first (verse 106) he claimed to observe the mishpatim, he now (verse 108) requests: ‘teach me Thine mishpatim’. Again, what happened here?

* * *

נ-B (109-112)

Unlike the preceding semi-stanza, the second half of ‘נ’ is not knit together by the keywords of Psalm 119, which refer to God’s commandments. Verses 109-112 each contain their own distinct keywords: Torah, pikudim, eidot, and hukim. 

The emphasis here is on other words stitched into these verses, and the structure of this semi-stanza follows a different pattern than נ-A. The first two verses (109, 110) both contain the pattern of ‘and I… [verb] not’ (ו… לא {שם הפועל}י). Likewise, the second pair of verses (111, 112) share common language: לב (lev) – heart and לעולם (l’olam) – forever. These last four verses follow the pattern 1,1-2,2, unlike the first semi-stanza.

109-110

The first two verses of this semi-stanza pick up on the theme of threats and challenges faced by the Psalmist, which we saw at the end of נ-A.

On its face, the phrase ‘My life is always in my hand’ (נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד) doesn’t hint of danger to me. (In modern English and modern Hebrew, if something is “in your hands” this suggests that you have control of it.) However, Rashi, Radak, and Rabbi Altschuler link the biblical phrase directly to danger:

רש״י: נפשי בכפי תמיד. הרבה נסתכנתי בסכנות רבות קרובות למיתה Rashi: My life is always in my hand. I have been endangered by great dangers, close to death.
רד״ק: נפשי. … אני בסכנה תמיד כאילו נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי Radak: My life. … I am always in danger, as if my life is in my hand.
הרב אלטשולר: נפשי בכפי. … נפשי היא תמיד בסכנה כמו המחזיק דבר מה בכפו שהיא קרובה לפול כשפיתח כפו Rabbi Altschuler: My life is in my hand. … My life is always in danger, like one who is holding a thing in his hand that is nearly falling, should he open his hand.

This phrase occurs elsewhere in the bible and consistently refers to one’s life being in danger. Perhaps I understand: The Psalmist would rather have his life in God’s hand than in his own. This is not unlike the common fear of flying, in comparison to the not-so-common fear of driving.

The Psalmist’s fear of driving would be greater, and he would be correct:

Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. However, it may feel more dangerous because risk perception is based on more than facts, according to David Ropeik, risk communication instructor at Harvard School of Public Health. Driving affords more personal control, making it feel safer.

USA TODAY

Thus we see that verses 109 and 110 continue the theme of ‘being in danger’ from the preceding verses, but they differ from verses 107 and 108 in a critical way. The beginning of semi-stanza נ-B expresses the Psalmist’s awareness of the dangers he faces, but he is not pleading for God’s aid. Rather, he reverts to a language of confidence and mission, which he first used in verses 105 and 106, at the beginning of semi-stanza נ-A.

111-112

This shift back towards purpose and security continues building up in the final two verses of stanza נ. Here, in 111 and 112, the Psalmist makes no reference to any threats or dangers; rather, he expresses his unending commitment to God’s laws and his joy at performing them. ‘They are the rejoicing of my heart.’

* * *

Tying together the ends

While these two semi-stanzas can stand on their own, they do tell a story together. It’s a tale of a determination shaken by apprehension, followed by newfound perseverance, ultimately leading the Psalmist to soaring confidence and commitment. It’s the classic story of grit and spirit, set against the backdrop of faith and a strive for holiness.

The Psalmist employs multiple poetic devices in the telling, some more subtle than others. נ-A and נ-B flow together in narrative, but there is something more binding them together.

108 and 109 (the middle)

The end of נ-A connects elegantly to נ-B with language referring to uniquely human capabilities. Verse 108 evokes the element of human speech, that essential part of human culture, and thus of our evolution. Verse 109 evokes the human being’s hands, those dexterous appendages that enabled us to develop the technologies needed to dominate the planet.

105 and 112 (the ends)

Perhaps more intriguingly, the very beginning of נ-A ties beautifully into the end of נ-B, at least according to Rashi.

The key to understanding this is the very last word of the stanza: eikev (עקב). What does it mean? According to the BDB Dictionary, meanings (depending upon vowelization) include: heel, footprint, follow, circumvent, overreach, insidious, deceitful, steep, hilly, consequence, end.

The rabbis had to get very creative in order to interpret verse 112, which would have made perfect sense even without the word eikev. Radak and Rabbi Altschuler both suggest that eikev comes to emphasize l’olam (לעולם) – forever. In their readings, eikev means ‘to the utmost’, stemming, perhaps, from the idea that the heel is the utmost end of the body.

Rashi has a different take. Likely drawing a correlation to eikev in the context of heel (part of the foot), follow, and circumvent, he writes as follows:

לעולם עקב. על מעגלותם ועל נתיבותם For ever, eikev: On their circuitous routes and on their paths.

The word Rashi uses for ‘path’ is netivot (נתיבות), which is exactly the same word used by the Psalmist in verse 105: ‘a light unto my path’ (נְתִיבָתִי)!

This gracefully brilliant interpretation brings the stanza around full circle – the story’s end becomes its beginning. This understanding suggests that nothing less than the Psalmist’s soaring confidence and commitment to God’s commandments anticipate his affliction and desperate, humble beseechment before the Almighty.

Might the Psalmist have intuited a fault in boundlessness of faith?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 31

Does the traditional recitation of kaddish do honor to the non-believer?

I don’t see why not, but there are those for whom this is a sticking point. Writer and poet Aurora Levins Morales was uncomfortable with the notion of reciting the traditional kaddish for her atheist father; she instead wrote a personal version of it to honor him (from her website):

My father… was an atheist, and I couldn’t bring myself to say a traditional kaddish for him, but he did believe in forces greater than himself, and I decided to write my own kaddish celebrating his faith in their endurance and hopefulness.

Rabbi Marjorie Berman faced a similar conundrum when her anti-religious mother passed away, and while she didn’t rewrite the kaddish itself, she took a non-traditional approach to its recitation (from ‘Ritual Well’ blog):

It didn’t feel right to join a daily minyan … my mother was anti-religious. I decided the best way to remember her was to take a daily morning walk with a friend and say kaddish by the water in a beautiful and wild park…

At first, I too was struck by the incongruity of honoring my father this way.

He was an atheist… He had not recited kaddish for his father or mother because it wasn’t something that held meaning for him, and I don’t think he would particularly want me to recite it for him.

– Me, Blog #1

Nevertheless, I happen to be inclined towards tradition (partially for lack of imagination). This sentiment resonates:

The kaddish is my good fortune. It looks after the externalities, and so it saves me from the task of improvising the rituals of my bereavement, which is a lot to ask.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 39

My father may not have held a traditional belief in God, and he may not have been religiously oriented, but he held the Jewish heritage in high regard (blog # 10). He would have wanted to be buried according to Orthodox customs, just as he was; he would have respected my decision to recite the mourner’s kaddish for him in a traditional way.

Those of us who opt for the traditional approach are no less empowered to personalize our kaddish experiences. Jewish educator Nili Isenberg put the words of kaddish to the tune of Adele’s song ‘Hello’ (see the video above) while reciting kaddish for her father; artist Max Miller made a painting of every synagogue in which he recited kaddish (maxmillerstudio.com) in his father’s memory; and I have my blog.

Reflecting upon this now, I realize that my father’s religious beliefs and practices have only barely and almost imperceptibly shaped the contours my kaddish journey. This series should more aptly be called ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for his loving father’.

* * *

I happen to be inclined towards tradition.

Most of Jewish mourning practice is custom, rather than halakha. The recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a widely held custom, not unlike reciting Psalms at the unveiling of the tombstone, usually including segments of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is unique among the Psalms in its length, for it contains eight verses corresponding to each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet – a total of 176 verses. In the Talmud, Tractate Brachot 4b, this Psalm is referred to as the eight-faceted Psalm (תמניא אפין), and thematically it describes the Psalmist’s striving to live according to the Torah of God. Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK, 1160–1235) points out that every single verse contains one of eleven words that refer to Torah:

בכל פסוק ופסוק יש בו 1) דרך, או 2) תורה, או 3) עדות, או 4) פקודים, או 5) מצוה, או 6) אמירה, או 7) דבור, או 8) משפט, או 9) צדק, או 10) אמונה, או 11) חוקים, ואלא המילות הם חלקי כל התורה Every single verse contains [one of the following]: 1) derekh, or 2) Torah, or 3) eidot, or 4) pekudim, or 5) mitzvah, or 6) amirah, or 7) dibur, or 8) mishpat, or 9) tzedek, or 10) emunah, or 11) hukim, and these are the words that [together] are [all] the parts of the entire Torah.

Stop.
I’m getting carried away already.
(texts do that to me)

Why am I doing this?

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Before delving further, I must articulate a truth: I have never found the recitation of Psalms meaningful.

Most individual psalms involve the praise of God—for his power and beneficence, for his creation of the world, and for his past acts of deliverance for Israel. The psalms envision a world in which everyone and everything will praise God, and God in turn will hear their prayers and respond.

Wikipedia

I praise God very sparingly and with sincerity only in my own words. I tell God that I doubt His existence more often than I make requests of Him. I find the faith-oriented language of the Psalms unrelatable in both form and content, and I find their rote recitation mindless under the best of circumstances. I am not in possession of simple faith.

In Jewish tradition, however, the Psalms are a big deal. Rabbi Levi Cooper, a former teacher of mine, wrote (Jerusalem Post):

Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman of Buczacz (1771-1840)… cited the Midrash which describes King David as requesting from the Almighty that his Psalms be granted unique status… Psalms should be read and pondered. Moreover, readers of Psalms should receive reward as if they were studying difficult passages of the Oral Law(Midrash Shoher Tov 1:8).

Rabbi Cooper suggests we ponder the Psalms. This, at least, is a step up from mouthing their syllables endlessly, brow furrowed; torso swaying; hands clenching on bus rides.

Psalms will be recited at the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, and I have an opportunity to prepare myself accordingly. I am indeed inclined towards tradition, but disinclined towards ceding my mental and spiritual faculties to its champions. I am skeptical of God’s good nature and concern for His creations, but I am mistrustful too of my narrow, human inclinations.

Some say this is what we do. I say no; this is what we’ve been doing. We’ve been reciting Psalm 119 to honor our loved ones by selecting from it those verses that correspond to their names. My father was א-ל-כ-ס-נ-ד-ר (Alexander), comprised of seven Hebrew letters, each of which is represented by eight verses.

I will turn to our tradition for wisdom; and then I will respond.

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Radak’s 11 keywords for Psalm 119

Before tackling the first eight verses of Psalm 119 that correspond to the letter א (alef*), let’s get back to Radak and the eleven keywords of this particular Psalm. This will be instructive to our learning, as we make our way through the verses.

*A side note:
Alef means to learn/ study/ train/ teach, according to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 104a; therefore א-ל-פ (a-l-f) is the root of the word אולפן (ulpan), which is an institute or program for the intensive study of Hebrew.

Radak explicates each of the eleven terms as follows (translations mine):

Torah means ‘the attribute of the mitzvah, [which focuses on] how it is performed’. Derekh means ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Hukim are ‘the mitzvot whose reason[s] have not been revealed’. Mitzvot are ‘those of which it is [explicitly] stated [in the Torah] that these are commandments’. Mishpatim are ‘the laws between man and his fellow [man]’. Eidot are ‘the mitzvot that [serve as] testimony and memory’ [of the revelation of Torah and God’s supremacy]. Pikudim are ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’. Tzedek is ‘the justification of the mitzvot, for they were uttered in righteousness’. Dibur and Amirah are ‘[the verbal expression] basic to all mitzvot; and dibur and amirah are also reminder[s] of the promise, which God promised’. Emunah is ‘the fulfillment of God’s word[s] at the Creation of the World’.

Precision and systematization are the names of the game.

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ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

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ן

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PSALM 119:א (verses 1-8)

[CLICK for glossary]

א אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי-דָרֶךְ– הַהֹלְכִים, בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה 1 Happy are they that are upright in the derekh; who walk in the Torah of God.
ב אַשְׁרֵי, נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו; בְּכָל-לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ 2 Happy are they that keep His eidot; that seek Him with the whole heart.
ג אַף, לֹא-פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה; בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ 3 Yea, they do no unrighteousness; they walk in His drakhim (plural).
ד אַתָּה, צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ– לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד 4 Thou hast ordained Thy pikudim that we should observe them diligently.
ה אַחֲלַי, יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי– לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ 5 My wishes are that my drakhim (plural) were directed to observe Thy hukim!
ו אָז לֹא-אֵבוֹשׁ– בְּהַבִּיטִי, אֶל-כָּל-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ 6 Then I shall not be ashamed, when I have regard unto all Thy mitzvot.
ז אוֹדְךָ, בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב– בְּלָמְדִי, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 7 I will give thanks unto Thee with uprightness of heart, when I learn Thy misphatei tzedek.
ח אֶת-חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר; אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי עַד-מְאֹד 8 I will observe Thy hukim; O forsake me not utterly.

It’s a happy coincidence that my father’s name begins with alef. I’ll be jumping around from stanza to stanza, based upon the letters of the name אלכסנדר, but the beginning is a fortuitous place to start – particularly with a Bible chapter of such daunting length. 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.”

There are three aspects to this first stanza that draw my thoughts.

The first thing I notice, given the glossary of eleven keywords that Radak provided us, is that the word derekh (or its plural) occurs thrice in this stanza, and the word hukim occurs twice. Verse 5 serves as a transition between the initial emphasis on derekh in verses 1, 3, and 5 to the later use of hukim in verses 5 and 8.

The first two occurrences of derekh are references to ‘ways of God’, whereas the third instance (verse 5) refers to the psalmist’s own human ways. These ‘ways of man’ are explicitly portrayed as lacking natural relationship to hukim (in the same verse), which are those Divine commandments that confound all human reason.

My second realization is that there exists another shift between verses 3 and 4, in the manner of how the psalmist is referring to God. In the first three verses, God is referred to in the third person, but verses 4-8 appeal to Him personally. This transition precedes the transition between derekh and hukim by just one verse.

It is as though the human can only bring himself to truly accept the incomprehensible hukim by way of personal relationship with God. Still, in verse 8 the psalmist promises to abide by the hukim regardless, in hope that he will not be forsaken.

Thirdly, the word אֵבוֹשׁ (I will be ashamed) in verse 6 immediately recalls for me the thirteenth benediction of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, which we recite thrice daily. That benediction, which refers to the righteous among us, reminds me of my Papa (blog #28), as I have written.

The Amidah requests that God ‘cast our lot with the righteous ones, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You’, whereas in Psalm 119 the author puts the burden upon his own shoulders: man will only cease to be ashamed once he has directed his ‘human ways’ to observe God’s impenetrable demands.

The relationship between shame and faith in God is not clear to me. Are we to be ashamed for doubting God or for something else? And how would devotion to God assuage our human shame? If a person of true faith were to sin, wouldn’t his shame be all the greater for his faith? And isn’t the pious man with no shame potentially a great danger?

Papa was righteous and pure of heart without having drawn inspiration from the Book of Psalms, and his personal ‘way’ was to be repelled by lack of reason. I am proudest of my parents for their authentic decency, and -even more so- for their integrity.