It’s been a rough week for me. Just before last Shabbat, I learned of the death of one of my very closest childhood friends. Later in the week I had several shiva (the seven days immediately following a funeral have the strictest “restrictions”/protections of the mourning period and mourners and discouraged to leave their home during this period–thus, we visit them and even bring the synagogue, as it were, to them) visits to make.
I counseled one person about saying Kaddish (a simple meditation on God’s majesty, written in Aramaic, and the most commonly associated mourning liturgy). The accepted custom is to recite it at every opportunity which, in practice, means davening with a minyan (a quorum of 10), three times a day where it is already built into the liturgy. For many people this practice brings great comfort. For others, it also can serve to return them to Jewish practice–spending a year going to shul almost every day has quite an effect.
There are others, however, for whom it can become a real burden. The idea of going to shul daily, even the obligation of davening three times a day, can become counterproductive, eventually even giving rise to anger and resentment. Many in today’s world find it an ordeal to daily demonstrate, publicly, their lack of skill or even familiarity with Hebrew, let alone Aramaic.
In order to defuse this potential problem, I often explain to some people that Kaddish really isn’t that important. The preferred method to support a loved one’s neshama (soul) after life is to study even a little bit of Torah in their name every day. Our sages realized that this avenue is only available, however, to people who have reached the age of being able to study Torah. For younger children, who still wanted to honor and support the memory of their parent, our sages created a short declaration of God’s greatness and mercy, written in the English of their day, Aramaic. It was never intended to be a tongue-twister and it was never intended to become the primary expression of mourning. Therefore, I counsel some people to, yes, go to synagogue when they can and to stand up and say Kaddish when they do, but to choose a book in the world of Torah and Jewish learning to reserve for those days when they can’t for any reason, bring themselves to saying Kaddish. In fact, this study will be even more “powerful” than the mere recitation of Kaddish.
Although it’s been more than two decades since I lost my own parents, and I daily pray that I’ll never be forced to mourn my children, the death of my friend brought me to a very similar emotional state to what I felt when my parents died. I feel bereft and alone, a stranger in this new world which no longer contains my late friend.
This led my thoughts back to Kaddish, that “prayer” that was designed for a small child. I realized that when we lose someone we loved so much, we’re faced with, among other things, our own powerlessness to have prevented that death. We do, indeed, regress to that aspect of our childhood, although now we’re feeling abandoned as well as powerless.
From Rosh Chodesh Elul until Shemini Atzeret, we add Psalm 27, לדוד ה” אורי, to our daily prayers. It contains the verse (10), כִּי־אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי וַה” יַאַסְפֵנִי, Even when my father and mother have abandoned me, God will gather me in”.
In other words, especially when we lose a loved one, we need to be reminded that although we feel like and abandoned child, we still have an אבינו שבשמים, Avinu Sh’B’Shemayim “Father in Heaven”. Perhaps it’s more than worth the inconvenience, even the pain and aggravation and humbling that often accompanies the daily obligation to attend services, to be reminded that, in the words of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Holy Zohar, in relationship to God, the Infinite, we’re all children.
Of course, when we engage in Torah studies and confront the infinite knowledge that we’ll never understand, rather than feeling frustrated or inadequate, we should celebrate this reminder of our place in the universe. So, do try to say Kaddish when you can, but rely on the other avenues to bring you to the same place.