Bhagavad Gita Verse 34, Chapter 6

Below is a truth that transcends cultures, which reminds me of a limerick that I wrote:

Swift swish-swishing tails and sure fins
Gliding right through the shipwreck within
Bumping up against walls
As there’s something that calls
Past bones round of my small cranium


A simple, modern translation and explanation of the Bhagavad Gita with shloka (verse) meaning

chanchalam hi manaha krishna pramaathi balavaddrudham |
tasyaaham nigraham manye vaayoriva sudushkaram || 34 ||

 
For, the mind is fickle, rebellious, strong and stubborn, O Krishna. To control it, I think, is as arduous as the wind.
 
chanchalam : fickle
hi : for
manaha : mind is
krishna : O Krishna
pramaathi : rebellious
balavat : strong
drudham : stubborn
tasya : it
aham : I
nigraham : control
manye : think
vaayoho : the wind
iva : like
sudushkaram : arduous
 
Arjuna further elaborates on the difficulty of controlling the mind for meditation to Shri Krishna. He says that it is as difficult as trying to harness the wind. Why is that so? The mind is fickle, rebellious, strong and stubborn. It will refuse any attempt to be controlled.
 
Shri Krishna had acknowledged the fickle nature of the mind in previous shlokas. We oursleves have…

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Artists want to hear that…

No matter how short the presentation, how fragmentary the excerpt, or how early the stage of development, artists want to hear that what they have just completed has significance to another human being. This natural condition can be so intense at times as to appear desperate.

– Liz Lerman & John Borstel, ‘Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process’, page 19

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, 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, 47

Two weeks ago a middle-aged woman approached me at the back of the sanctuary, as I was readying to head home for havdalah.
I’ve been thinking about you recently. You must be nearly done by now… I’m almost at the end of my eleven months.
I recognized her immediately – the rabbi’s daughter (blog #3). She had lost her father not long after Papa died, just after I returned from shiva in New Jersey. I had been in the shloshim stage of mourning then.
Oh, hello! Yes, I completed my eleven months of kaddish just over a week ago, but the yahrzeit won’t be for another two months.
She nodded in understanding.
Yes, because of the Hebrew leap year – I also have an extra month. It’s good to see you again.
Thank you; it’s very nice to see you too.
The memories flooded back. Seemingly a lifetime ago, I had attended shiva at this woman’s home for four consecutive evenings to make minyan so that she could recite kaddish for her father.

A month later, in August, I wrote of that (blog #3):

The rabbi’s daughter was sitting shiva, and I was already past that stage, in the shloshim period of my mourning. According to Jewish tradition, her wound was fresher than mine, her mourning more acute, but this did not feel true to me. For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

* * *

Every ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog entry feels like it must be the very last. I post and think: That’s it. Done. I’ve wrung my heart out. The next post is always unfathomable to me until it is has become the last one.

In mid-December I found myself reflecting upon that shiva again in another blog post, shortly after I’d finished devouring a compilation of women’s kaddish stories. The months, it seemed, had done their work in grinding down the edges of my grief (blog #19):

Everything was about my pain then [i.e. in July, during the rabbi’s shiva], and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

* * *

Reading through my older blog posts, only snippets of observations and reflections feel authentically mine today, as if each of my entries had been authored by another member of a mourners’ support group, before passing my cracked, black laptop around the circle to the next.

My own words come back to me (blog #39):

By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

* * *

One particular leg of my journey this year led me upon an intensive search for creative and modern expressions of kaddish. I found other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), as well as a musician who had put the mourner’s kaddish to song and an artist who had made paintings of every synagogue where he’d recited the kaddish in honor of his father (blog #31). At around that time I also came across another artist who had charted a unique, personalized kaddish journey, but this man’s story froze me. Steven Branfman had lost his son.

Here is the father’s kaddish story in his own words:

Some concepts are hard to wrap my mind around and harder still to put words to, but the story of Steven’s grief over Jared’s death brought up a dreadful question: what if it had been somebody other than Papa? Somebody other than a parent of mine?

For all the pain behind my writing this year, for all my shock and despair at losing my father, I had always “known” that he would die before me. Given, he should have lived another ten or twenty years, well into his eighties or his nineties. Given, I’d never imagined him leaving us so unexpectedly or so suddenly, in a matter of greedy, insatiable hours while I was putting his beloved granddaughter to bed far across the churning waters. Still, stories of grown adults mourning their departed parents do not usually shatter us.

I acknowledge to myself: My grief has been bearable enough for me to blog about.

* * *

I was surprised when I found out that the halachic, traditional Jewish period for mourning a child is only thirty days. But one of the mothers explained why: it’s because you grieve the rest of your life. You don’t need need the rituals to remind you to grieve. You will think of your child forever.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 82)

This folk wisdom from Sherri Mandell’s book of loss and mourning hasn’t come up in any Jewish sources that I’ve seen, but our ancient traditions are ever hungry for relevance, and these bereaved mothers’ words are of the sheerest sagacity. Thoughts such as these leave me flailing to keep my head above guilt, but I’ve already steeled myself once before to admit this:

If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him.

– Me, blog #27

* * *

There were too, too many minutes in the few hours before Papa’s death, my senses vibrating at a frequency that was out of step with the usual rhythm of things. Then my cellphone screen lit up with a time-bending message from my brother, just as my daughter was complaining that she wasn’t sleepy: “Dead”. Collected and reeling, I placed the phone face down by the bedside, coaxing and calming my little girl as she fell aslumber.

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

* * *

As I was perusing the bookshelves at my mother’s home in New Jersey last month, ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart’ called to me. Mama, it turns out, had acquired the book some years ago because I’d shared the story of Koby Mandell with her – the boy who had once invited me to his bar mitzvah.

In the summer of 2000 I was in Jerusalem, studying at a yeshiva where Rabbi Seth Mandell was teaching. I was drawn to him because he dressed and spoke more like me than any of the other rabbis, and I always looked forward to seeing him on our weekly day trips.

It was on a walk along the ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem that I met Koby, and we spent much of that tour chatting together. He was twelve years old and bursting with enthusiasm; and I felt drawn to that buoyant, American-mannered child who breathed in Israel so naturally. I still recall with amusement Rabbi Mandell’s teasing rebuke to his son: You can’t invite everyone you meet to your bar mitzvah, Koby. (I wouldn’t have been in Israel for the event anyway, and I’m pretty sure Koby knew that.)

At the end of the summer I returned to my university studies and the powder keg exploded. From the safety of America, I read about the devastating terrors of the Second Intifada.

I was shocked and shattered by Koby’s murder.

* * *

‘It’s hard for the one who dies, but it’s harder for those left behind,’ Koby said after two high school boys were killed by terrorists only two months before his own death.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 151)

Perhaps it’s trite to write, but there are different ways of knowing – different modes – different depths. This quote from Koby is intuitive, right? What could be more apparent?

Still, I somehow never used to think too much about “those left behind” before my Papa died. Sure, I felt bad for them; I knew that the living were left suffering, smoldering in pain; but my thoughts would inevitably alight upon those who had departed: so sad, so unfortunate, so terrible, so tragic; they had so much yet to live for… so… so… so…

Now that Koby’s insight has been absorbed into my depths
I’ll never again unknow it.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 41

I learned how to make matzah brei from Papa z"l. This is a very fond childhood memory of mine and remains one of my favorite Pesach foods even today.
I learned how to make matzah brei from Papa z”l. This is a very fond childhood memory of mine and remains one of my favorite Pesach foods even today.

A mourner’s notes:

  • Some unsolicited wisdom for the kaddish blogger:

There’s no way to really preserve a person when they’ve gone and that’s because whatever you write down it’s not the truth, it’s just a story. Stories are all we’re ever left with in our head or on paper: clever narratives put together from selected facts, legends, well edited tall tales with us in the starring roles.

– Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts, p. 413

  • My tefillin and tallit have taken up residence at shul. I know in advance that I’ll be back the next day so why not leave them? They only come home if I’ll be attending a different minyan the following day for logistical reasons. (I brought my tefillin home for Pesach because we don’t use them in Israel during the holiday.)
  • On at least two occasions, I have been convinced that I would get to shul several minutes too late for the earliest recitations of kaddish, but luckily there was no minyan until I walked through the door. This is male privilege.
  • Somebody new has joined our minyan: a male mourner who is comfortable at the helm. He has been leading services for the past several weeks, relieving the rest of us of awkward, suggestive stares. Also, I like his pacing and enunciation.
  • My friend Arielle gave birth to a son last week. As a mourner, I will attend the brit milah, but I will not remain for the festive meal.
  • My friend David’s daughter will be celebrating her bat mitzvah in June. I will have completed eleven months of kaddish recitation by then, but the event will be held during my twelve months of mourning so I will not be attending.
  • I have already missed two festive occasions on account of the religious restrictions associated with being a mourner. 1) A post-wedding celebration in Haifa of a friend from the USA. 2) An anniversary celebration of two friends from my minyan.
  • I miss Papa. Pesach is the holiday that most reminds me of him (blog #10). Beyond images of my father at our family seders, I most vividly recall the taste and texture his matzah brei, which I continue to prepare myself and enjoy annually at home (salted this year with my tears).
  • Today’s post marks the last of my commentaries on the stanzas of Psalm 119 in Papa’s memory.

* * *

How do I feel about completing my study of these Psalm 119 stanzas?

It feels liberating. As of today, I’m no longer bound to their religious themes, keywords, and language patterns. While I’ve never known what I would write about in any given ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ post before putting my fingers to the keyboard, I’ve felt fettered to Psalm 119 since choosing to embark upon it.

On the other hand, I’m still surprised every time I complete a post and realize that it reads coherently. How haven’t I run out of steam yet? Where will I get my next idea from? What more is there to write about? In this, Psalm 119 has been a ‘Godsend’ (see what I did there?). For eleven posts now, I haven’t had to worry about coming up with prompts or subject-matters – I’ve needed only to flow from the stanzas.

And… I’m proud of my commentary. So long, 119; it’s been real.

* * *

This leg of my kaddish odyssey ends with stanza ה (hey) of Psalm 119. Even as I type, I feel wistful.

Stanza ה is variegated. I’ve been sorting through these stanzas by keywords, but no other verses have I splashed with so much color-coding as these final eight. In part, it’s me. This time around, the Psalmist’s repeated use of particular word roots marks only the beginning of my exploration… I’ve also identified and linked together additional terms according to their themes.

The Psalmist’s overtones and undertones do resonate.

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PSALM 119:ה (verses 33-40)

[CLICK for glossary]

לג הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ חֻקֶּיךָ; וְאֶצְּרֶנָּה עֵקֶב 33 Teach me, O Lord, the derekh of Thy hukim; and I will cherish it at every step.
לד הֲבִינֵנִי, וְאֶצְּרָה תוֹרָתֶךָ; וְאֶשְׁמְרֶנָּה בְכָל-לֵב 34 Give me understanding, that I cherish Thy Torah and observe it with [my] whole heart.
לה הַדְרִיכֵנִי, בִּנְתִיב מִצְוֺתֶיךָ: כִּי-בוֹ חָפָצְתִּי 35 Make me to tread [hadrikheini] in the path of Thy mitzvot for therein do I desire.
לו הַט-לִבִּי, אֶל-עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ; וְאַל אֶל-בָּצַע 36 Incline my heart unto Thy eidot, and not to unjust gain.
לז הַעֲבֵר עֵינַי, מֵרְאוֹת שָׁוְא; בִּדְרָכֶךָ חַיֵּנִי 37 Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and vitalize me in Thy drakhim.
לח הָקֵם לְעַבְדְּךָ, אִמְרָתֶךָ— אֲשֶׁר, לְיִרְאָתֶךָ 38 Fulfill Thy imrah for Thy servant, regarding the fear of Thee.
לט הַעֲבֵר חֶרְפָּתִי, אֲשֶׁר יָגֹרְתִּי: כִּי מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ טוֹבִים 39 Turn away my disgrace, which I fear; for Thine mishpatim are good.
מ הִנֵּה, תָּאַבְתִּי לְפִקֻּדֶיךָ; בְּצִדְקָתְךָ חַיֵּנִי 40 Behold, I have longed for Thy pikudim; vitalize me in Thy righteousness.

Every verse but one makes reference to God’s commandments: hukim, Torah, mitzvot, eidot, imrah, mishpatim, and pikudim. This is the first I’ve encountered a stanza that doesn’t repeat a single mitzvah-related keyword, as if the Psalmist is projecting an image of the Divine Law onto the text through a rotating kaleidoscope.

* * *

Verse 37 is the verse that unlocks this stanza for me.

The keyword is drakhim (plural), which Radak’s (1160–1235) glossary defines as: ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Drakhim does not refer to halakha (Jewish Law) per se; and the Malbim (1809-1879) explicates:

בם חייני. על ידי שאראה שדרכי ה’ חסד ורחמים וחנינה ואלמד ללכת בדרכיו לחיות בהם Vitalize me in them’. By virtue of my seeing that God’s drakhim (ways) are kindness, mercy, and amnesty; and my learning to walk in His drakhim [in order] to live by them.

‘Drakhim’, says the Malbim, refers not to Divine commandedness. It is a matter of morality, and as it turns out, derekh (root: ד-ר-כ), is the only keyword of Psalm 119 repeated in stanza ה. We find this root thrice – in verses 33,  35, 37 – in every other verse of the stanza. One might reasonably expect to find it again in 39, but no dice.

* * *

Let’s take another look at verse 37; there’s a lot of action. This verse alone includes three of our repeating terms. The first, as mentioned, is ד-ר-כ, the second is vitalize me (חַיֵּנִי), and the third is Turn away (הַעֲבֵר). Notably, these latter terms are repeated only in the second half of the stanza, as is another concept: fear.

Here I take creative license. The roots of the words for fear in stanzas 38 and 39 are not the same: י-ר-א in verse 38 and י-ג-ר in verse 39. Still, let’s step back for a moment: Way-tread, way-tread, way-tread, turn away!, vitalize!, fear!, turn away!, fear!, vitalize!

* * *

There are two more theme-pieces to our puzzle.

The first is the unambiguous repetition of the word לֵב (lev), meaning heart, in verses 34 and 36 in the first half of the stanza.

The second theme-piece is conceptual: desire-value. I didn’t notice this right away because there are four separate roots that play into it: 1) Verses 34 & 35. Root: א-צ-ר; Store, Treasure. 2) Verse 35. Root: ח-פ-צ; Pleasure, Desire. 3) Verse 36. Root: ב-צ-ע; Unjust gain; Profit. 4) Verse 40. Root ת-א-ב; Long for, Desire.

Clicking these pieces into place produces the following picture:

  • The 1st half (33-36): Way-tread, desire-value, desire-value, heart, way-tread, desire-value, heart, desire-value.
  • The 2nd half (37-40): turn away!, vitalize!, way-tread, fear!, turn away!, fear!, desire-value, vitalize!

One could write the stanza’s meta-story along these themes, and I find it striking that none of the exegetes pursue a similar line of analysis. The medievals’ collective ear was tone-deaf to the Psalmist’s poetry, else they simply considered approaches such as mine frivolous.

* * *

Let’s zoom back in on the root: ד-ר-כ, which is repeated thrice in our stanza – in verses 33,  35, 37. The sequence breaks in verse 39 – why? Derekh refers to God’s ‘way’, which is one of kindness and mercy, per the Malbim. We’ve followed this ד-ר-כ trail straight to verse 39, but an abrupt shift in theme and tone awaits us: turn away!, fear! 

What is the Psalmist hoping to turn away from? What is it that he fears?

– HIS OWN DISGRACE –

In their interpretations of stanza ה, the exegetes refer us once again to the story of King David (blog #36). Recall that it was David, according to most Jewish religious authorities, who authored the holy Psalms (blog #33); and the great Radak lends his support to this narrative, reading verses 38 and 39 as a unit:

VERSE 38

הקם. מה שהבטחתני להקים המלכות לבני אחרי ‘Fulfill’. That which You promised me – to establish the kingship for my sons after me >>>
אשר ליראתך. אשר יהיו דבקים ליראתך ‘Regarding the fear of Thee’. >>> who will be attached to [their] fear of You.

VERSE 39

העבר חרפתי. לפי שאמר בפסוק שלפני זה להקים ההבטחה לבניו אחריו, בקש שלא יהיה לשטן לו אותו העון שהוא חרפתו לבניו ואע”פ שאמר לו גם ה’ העביר חטאתך מכל מקום בקש מהאל ית’ שיעבירו גם מבניו ‘Turn away my disgrace’. As it is said in the verse that comes before, this [means] to fulfill the promise to his sons after him. He requested that the Satan wouldn’t [attribute] the same transgression that was his [King David’s] disgrace to his sons; and even though God told him He would “turn away your sin,” he still requested something more from God – that He would transfer it [David’s transgression] away from his sons.

King David’s great sin, alluded to by Radak, was committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the death of her husband; and it is this wicked misdeed that the Psalmist juxtaposes with God’s derekh of kindness and mercy.

This is what the Psalmist is likely referring to in verse 36 when he writes of ‘unjust gain’ at the end of the 1st half of our stanza, after he writes so earnestly of cherishing God’s derekh and Torah and desiring the path of His mitzvot.

The terrible brush with unjust gain brings the early theme of desire-value to its abrupt end, leading to turn away!, fear!, and the Psalmist’s desperate entreaty to God: vitalize me!

* * *

Ultimately, rising above his shameful disgrace, the Psalmist rediscovers longing in verse 40, and this time for God’s pikudim, which, according to Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are: ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’.

Of course, we know that Radak’s glossary is hardly peshat (blog #36), but then neither is reading the story of King David into the Psalms. In fact, I mention it here purely for poetic reasons. As noted earlier, one of Psalm 119’s early themes is ‘heart’ (לב), which occurs only in verses 34 and 36 and then disappears in the face of turn away! and fear! only to reemerge with the greatest of subtlety at the conclusion of the stanza.

In this reading, we find that the Psalmist’s desire, now directed at the Divine commandments most natural to his heart, finds his confidence restored, as he appeals through deep faith to God’s great righteousness.

* * *

One might say (as Radak does) that pikudim represent the most basic of Jewish values, those Divine behaviors that come most naturally to humankind. Simple, isn’t it? The trick, as we know all too well from experience, is that not all human hearts are drumming in harmony.

Perhaps… if we observe the lives of those most naturally kind and merciful (as the Malbim put it – remember?) who lead their lives unbound by supposedly Divine imperatives, we might begin to better comprehend the concept of God’s pikudim.

Each day I recite; I write; I remember and appreciate my exceedingly humble, kind and merciful father. (Papa would have been horribly embarrassed at my extolling his virtues for all the world to read.)

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 ♪♫

* * *

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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?