Shavuot celebrates revelation, a moment when the hidden becomes disclosed. Sadly, revelation is a painful process. Often, the darkness of death is necessary for the light to be revealed.
My brother's passing,on January 11, 2017, shone a ray of light into his soul and was experienced as a time of revelation of a life that was taken for granted by so many.
What was revealed was that unique quality of heart and soul that is the focus of our attention on this festival as we read the Book of Ruth. Our sages tell us: The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot to teach us the reward for "Chessed"-compassion, loving-kindness, acceptance and tolerance, goodness and decency, a genuine respect for others. This quality transcends gender; my brother Lawrence live his life in the shadow of Ruth's goodness,with the simplicity and depth of one who loves for its own sake.
I share with you a meditation on the Kaddish in his memory.
Kaddish: Judaism’s Prayer for the Soul
A Personal Meditation
“Kaddish is not so much the praise of God as a prayer for the praise of God” (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 28)
In memory of my beloved brother,
Lawrence Howard ( Oct. 11,1936 -Jan.12, 2017)
חנא ליב בן יוסף הכהן ורחל
of blessed memory.
As a rabbi, the Kaddish has figured prominently in my work. At every worship service, mourners and those commemorating the yahrzeit–anniversary of death–of loved ones would rise and recite its words.
Each funeral and unveiling ritual concluded with Kaddish’s praises rising to the open skies above rows of lonely tombstones.
For a number of years, engaged as I was in exploring the place of gratitude in the spiritual life, I was fascinated by the simplicity of this “prayer” and puzzled by its ostensible contradiction of reciting praise at the time of death. I was on the verge of beginning to record in writing my thoughts and
ideas on this subject when my brother unexpectedly died. Instead of approaching my investigations through the academic routes of theology and philosophy, I found myself unexplainably caught up in words of personal poetry, responding out of the cold harshness of death from the heart. What emerged was the following meditation.
To introduce this personal response I’ve provided a brief overview of the place of Kaddish in Jewish thinking so as to orient the reader to some of the liturgy referenced in the poetry. I am deeply grateful for the inspired insights of those to whom I refer in the course of this barest of sketches.
This meditation was a source of comfort to me and helped me gain a greater understanding of the human condition. I can only hope that the reader too gains solace and a glimpse of clarity in this time of grief and confusion.
Finally, my brother Lawrence was the sweetest of men; I miss him and pray that this meditation reach him somehow and fill him with the pride, joy, and love that we shared while he lived.
With the passing of the nearest of kin, the Kaddish is recited in the synagogue, in the company of a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult Jews, at each of the three daily prayer services, shacharit (the morning service), minchah (the afternoon service), and maariv (the evening service). Its duration of recitation is determined by the nature of one’s relationship to the deceased; the child’s commitment for the parent is eleven months minus one day, while for a spouse, sibling, or child, the period of Kaddish recital is thirty days.
Kaddish is integral to the worship service as a prayer that separates the various components of the service and is chanted by the prayer leader. Its popularity is associated with the experience of mourning, bereavement, and memory. Virtually anyone who sustains a loss of a loved one, at some time or another, recites the Kaddish.
The reasons for its hold on the Jewish imagination are many. For some, reciting Kaddish is prompted by a sense of commitment to a pattern of traditional Jewish living. Many others, however, who do not share this type of involvement still feel the need and desire to recite this special prayer. It can represent a way to pay honor to the deceased loved one; it is viewed as something that the deceased would have wished for; perhaps it functions as a means of absolving one’s sense of guilt, an emotion often emerging after death. Myriad reasons may be felt in the privacy of a loved one’s mind and heart.
Curiously, while reserved for times of death, the prayer itself makes not the slightest reference to death or anything associated with this final event of life. Yet, its words are central to the death experience. Why? How is this prayer to be understood? What religious and spiritual purpose does it serve?
First, it was, and continues to be, seen by many as a powerful instrument by means of which the living can influence the final journey of the deceased’s soul: “The Kaddish is a handclasp between the generations, one that connects two lifetimes...the son’s recitation of kaddish represents a continuation of (the life of the deceased, its ideals, and aspirations)...in the complicated calculus of the spirit, the reverse is possible! The deeds of the child can redeem the life of the parent, even after the parent’s death” (Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p. 158).
The fundamental and most frequently recorded incident regarding Kaddish is the mystical vision of the great sage Rabbi Akiba. He had a vision of a well-known sinner who had died and was condemned to intolerable punishment. The sinner informed the rabbi in the vision that only if his surviving son would recite Kaddish would he be redeemed. The rabbi proceeded to teach the youngster these prayers. When the youngster recited the Kaddish, he saved his father from perdition (ibid., pp. 160-61).
Furthermore, the Kaddish is not merely based on kinship; “It is based on the son’s righteousness...this appeal is not made in the name of blood, it is made in the name of character...the mourner says: have pity on the soul of this man because he raised a man who stands before you and submits to your authority” (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 386). “The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead; it is an achievement of the dead” (ibid., p. 421).
In contrast to this concept of redeeming the deceased, the mystical and Hassidic traditions see Kaddish as a means of comfort and restoration for God Himself. The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but the Kaddish is a prayer for God: “The Kaddish is a reckoning of God’s loss” (for the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel) (ibid, p. 426).
This concept is further reinforced in the Talmud which tells us, “I heard a divine voice cooing sadly and muttering, ‘Woe is Me that I destroyed my Temple and burned my Sanctuary and exiled my children among the peoples of the world’...the Divine Voice speaks this way three times a day, when Jews come to the houses of worship...and exclaim: ‘May His Name be blessed always and forever’ (in response to the beginning of the Kaddish), God nods His head sadly and says: ‘Happy is the king whose children extol him in his own house! But woe to the father who banished his children and woe to the children who have been banished from their father’s table’” (T.B. Berachot 3:1).
Whatever the understanding of Kaddish’s power over the soul of the deceased and the nature of the Divine, it is unquestionably influential on the soul of the reciter who is still alive.
Saying the Kaddish after something as tragic and sometimes sudden as death speaks volumes about the character and strength of the one reciting the Kaddish; it is an act of defying death and transcending the anguish with the hope and belief in the ultimate realization of God's kingdom on this earth: “Kaddish is not only a statement about the greatness of God but about the greatness of man” (J.B. Soloveichik, Out of the Whirlwind, p. xix).
It is from this perspective that I offer the poetic meditation below. The thrust of the Kaddish’s words is to praise. As the Kaddish is recited we declare God’s praise in virtually every synonym of praise that exists in the Hebrew/Aramaic language. Essentially, Kaddish is composed of stanzas of gratitude.
Kaddish is repetitive, mantra-like, its cadences and rhythms soothe us and offer us solace; its sounds still our frantic fears, the music of its syllables and words soften the harshness of our grief. Repetition’s familiar cadences transforms us. As we recite, even without understanding, we find refuge from the onslaughts of confusion, loss, anger, guilt, and feelings of being abandoned and alone. Its mantric echoes anchor our existence in the midst of turbulent thoughts and emotions. Praising in spite of ourselves somehow eases pain, and slowly opens paths of peace, even of pleasantness: “Souls flutter, wings open, and the heart begins a flight toward healing, for the living and for the dead” (Hyla Shifra Bolsta, The Illuminated Kaddish, p. 21). Kaddish allows us to imbue the atmosphere with vibrations of expansiveness and holiness.
Kaddish (transliteration and translation)
Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba (Cong: Amein)
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Cong: Amen)
b'al'ma di v'ra khir’utei.
in the world that He created as He willed.
v'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
ba'agala uviz'man kariv v’im'ru.
swiftly and soon.
Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
Amein. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya.
(Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)
Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam v’yit'nasei,
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
v'yit'hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One
Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
blessed is He.
L'eila min kol bir'khata v'shirata
Beyond any blessing and song,
toosh'b'chatah v'nechematah, da'ameeran b'al'mah,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.
Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya
May there be abundant peace from Heaven
v'chayim aleinu v'al kol yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
and life upon us and upon all Israel.
Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
aleinu v'al kol Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
upon us and upon all Israel.
Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
Standing on silent soil
A Canadian wind whipping into faces
encrusted by frozen tears
belly laughs blown away
by gusts of time’s passage
words of law, of love, of innocent faith
now muzzled by frost - flaked mud
blankets of snow
an igloo, a haven from the raw cold
of soggy earth,
“I lift up my eyes...
from whence cometh my help?”
My help cometh from words ,
ancient and Aramaic,
that melt the world’s vast, cold nothingness
I shiver at the thought of my brother
caged in the coffin so cold-
no woolen blanket or furry coat,
no warmth of hugging body,
no loving massage of lifeless limbs
futility of futilities!
only the faint, reluctant murmuring of
words streaming into steamy puffs of lung- filtered breath
winding their way through particles of clay and polished wood
into the once heaving body of my big brother!
These words - somethingness-Magnified and Sanctified-
will tuck him in for the night of all eternity.
Oh God ! You have shrunk
like a baby’s blanket
meant to be laundered by mother’s loving hands,
into the swirling and crushing waters
of life’s grinding gears,
now tattered like a mourner’s
shirt, the biting wind lashing at
my heart, bare , still beating,
not like his, buried below, pounding no more.
You have receded into the waning rays
of a sun setting to close the week
and a life-
I clutch on to Your fading Presence
but Your Mighty outstretched Hand
has lost its grip
and I slide into the abyss of Your
Don’t go! I beg, don’t turn Your back,
the knots of Your Tefilin unraveling,
dragging on the floor of forgetfulness
How can I hold on?
You dare not abandon me, especially now?
Yitgadal-I shout out Your greatness,
My cry will cross empty spaces of death
and bring you back,
once again we will breathe the warmth and fulness of life
Yitgadal-with each piercing sound of praise
You inch Your way back to us
filling the cold void in our hearts
with intimations of love and kindness,
of hope and meaning,
of a reason to live.
I am afraid now, death fills me with dread,
Does Your Greatness grind existence into dust,
to merit Your concern?
Yitgadal- Don’t let Your greatness go to Your head!
Is it irreverrence? Insolence? Blasphemy deserving
of “Old Testament “ death?
Remember Your heart, what
My ancestors said:
“wherever one encounters Your Greatness,
there he touches Your humility!”
I now know your greatness -You too,
need my words, need my praise
Yitgadal-my greatness is back too
We are friends once again,
We are back, together !
Remove your gloves,
hands reddened by the icy air and
spilling from the cup of overflowing, washing away
traces of ‘ tumah,’ of the defilement of death.
Holiness has taken refuge elsewhere,
escaping the heavy silence of rows of lifeless stones
home is where the heart is, where
holiness is, sacredness of food, of family ,of friends,
As burning liquid stings my throat,
washing up against my numbness,
holiness seeps back into frozen pores.
shiva- people, voices, wailing , laughter, words words words
heard no more from the sweet mouth of my brother
now fill the mind with holiness, God is back,
and we slowly see the blurry outline
of sparks flickering
amid the husks of decay and decomposition.
“ His great Name.”
a Name of infinite names
Holy of holies Shepherd
Balma divrah kireutei :
“In the world created by Divine desire.”
Life is good! the words proclaim,
this world, beautiful!
Can God be mistaken, deliberately deceptive?
‘and God saw that it was good!’
Would He go back on His word?
You wished it and it was so,
This world is Yours,
You dare not ascend into the firmament of other worlds
leaving us behind?
Can a king be king without subjects?
A shepherd without sheep?
a teacher with no students?
a parent without children?
a lover with no beloved??
We will show you how to be loyal-
dragging weary bodies to shul,
early morning behind eyelids still stuck in slumber,
parched throats squeeze out Your Praise
and when we lie down,
to vacate the void in darkness
we still proclaim-yitgadal-
this is Your world,
we inhabit it
Your tenants Thank You!
and when we rise up,
roused by the soul’s return!
“ May God’s Sovereignty be restored.”
we had a dream, a dream we shared with You
that he live a few more years
to cuddle grandchildren in a warm Sunday morning bed
to rest palms on pure, soap- fragranced hair
and utter blessings,
to chant each morning Your praises without
calculation, with the clarity of a guiless heart
into this blankness our yearning yawns into
Bagalah u’vizman kariv:
“ Speedily, soon- PDQ.”
we want You now
Your absence, his, unbearable
layers of patient waiting peeling away
left with no more flesh
only cracked bones of
the valley of death
with love, there is patience,
with life, endurance of pain
can these bones live?
will I hear his voice
excitedly rebound off satellite towers
into my heart with the latest news
of life’s ordinary pleasures and gifts?
reality reminds me; there is no resurrection
so let him rest in peace
and expect nothing
yet I hope, I pray, I praise, I demand
‘bagalah’ -make a miracle quickly,
time is running out
the chase leaves me breathless
If not soon, patience will curl its way
into thin air , like the smoke
of country hearths.
hold on, Messiah’s steps
are just around the corner
someday , soon-we’ll be together.
Yehay shmay raba mevorach:
“ May His Great Name be Blessed.”
The congregation responds,
energy, eternal- community continues
God’s Name shedding light
on darkness of absence ,
like a Shiva candle whose flame
sinks into melting wax
casting a flicker when all lights are out
Has God’s blessing been suspended?
Interrupted in some way?
Is God’s blessing stoppable?
Can the world be sustained without
the energy and blessing from on High?
All bounty and blessing originate with You
flowing into our lives and the universe
as rivers coursing along winding paths of
mountains and valleys thirsting for
waters of life and growth.
unrestrained, uninhibited, unconditional currents
we search after words and deeds
that will ease and magnify the Divine flow of life’s energy and
we remove roadblocks,
the hurdles of hardened hearts,
of souls steeped in hurt and sorrow,
if only the eye of a needle may
allow the trickle of tenderness
to leap from the breast of the Lover
across the hills of heaven
and skip into the hearts of those beloved
hiding behind the lattices of loneliness
l’olam u’lolmay almayah:
“ Forever, as long as worlds endure.”
blessing beckons always and everywhere
time and space sparkle with God’s radiance, light
spillimg over the confines of God’s self enclosure
and we below acknowledge, absorbing
of illumination, thus staying alive
If God is not everywhere, He is nowhere
the whole world is filled with His glory!
Love in a vacuum is not love
love seeks a vessel,
baby’s first breath
Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnaseh v’yithadar v’yitaleh v’yithalal :
“ Be blessed, be praised, be embellished, be exalted, be elevated, be splendid, be above -all, be acclaimed. “
octet of adulation,
eight spheres spiraling through the Unity of the All
extraordinary, bursting beyond the ordinary,
span of seven
covenant’s cry of belonging, tiny body bundled in mother’s softness.
body bare, mohel’s cold blade, howling cutting through hovering clouds of
eight fold exaltation
eighth day of Assembly
we have reached our limit
depleted of all praise
we assemble, mere traces of Te Deum
as long as we are human
we can still whisper hallelujah
“ A Name of utter holiness.”
He hides, intimated only by a Name
by a symbol of letters,
a representation not of images
but of pictureless codes
to read, recite, repeat, intone and cantillate
to occupy a place of incomparability.
a name that death has tried to vilify-
a name revered and adored,
able to withstand all attempts at desecration and dismissal
and we add the scratchings of our own signatures
to Your Name,
outer walls to halt the slightest breach
of Your sacred integrity,
of Your Holy of Holies.
“ Be blessed.”
Echoes of blessing suffice at times
especially in the chorus
of many gathered to praise.
There is more, empty spaces, lifeless
awaiting the blessing of blessing, the breath
of ‘Magnify and Sanctify’
back to the beginning
opening words already forgotten
reclaim them to fill
the measure of God’s fullness
and now there were ten, we add the beginning
to create a new beginning, genesis all over again
the tools of construction are ten in number,
even God needed ten pronouncements to complete His work-
the soul yearns for its nurturance
and Sinai’s dosage of healing medicine administered
as ten-commandments, pronouncements,
words, a Decalogue.
The soul seeks higher heights!
commandments can curtail, constrict
how can we soar into vast stretches of mystery
and wonder, to touch the hem of God’s resplendent robes?
L’aylah-higher to ten emanations
sefirot of of the finest spirit,
planets of possibility,
so we laud tenfold
breaking new paths
to Shechina’s Presence
l’ayla min kol birchata v’shirata tushbechata v’nechematah:
“ Beyond all blessing, song, praise and consolation uttered by the human tongue.”
beyond all spheres of human blessing
there is a place, perhaps it is placeless
beyond description or conception
Is that the Ein Sof?
God out of reach, out of earshot,
blessings and praises swallowed up
in stretches of distant emptiness
tips of fingers straining to touch faint footsteps
met instead with cold nothingness, tingling in space
beyond consolation-God too, a mourner
even God’s desire for comfort transcends all tears and words,
all cries and human compassion
He too, Alone above, as we await in vain the sigh of solace,
all alone below.
We imagine the unimaginable, a God as distant as
a twinkling star
to wish upon, knowing all wishes vanish as wisps of smoke
into the reaches of earth’s skies.
Why praise, why bless, why sing, why boadcast the tremors of a broken heart?
Futility of Futilities! without beginning, without end, timeless blackness,
absolute oneness, all mystery, the Ein Sof stifles all sound, all breath,
wimper, scream, whisper.
Is it not cruel to command acclamation in every conceivable synonymn, until words, language and human utterance mock us in their impotence?
God needs not praise-do we need to praise?
Should we not halt now, simply aware of God’s beyondness and leave it at that?
No need to go on-we slump into defeated silence.
“All say Amen.”
we accept the truth of life, of Kaddish’s perspective
toward praising as survival,
“ hearts through shadow and mist say good-bye, let go the strings, and say Amen.”
yet praise falls short
l’ayla-beyond, over the edge
I’ve been stopped in my tracks
by Kaddish’s unforgiving,
how to give voice to words that lie buried below,
submerged , companions of utter quiet.
Still, I persist in praising, though consonants and vowels
tumble over the edge of nowhere, an empty abyss?
we have reached the end of the line.
if not praise, then what?
we shiver in the cold uncertainty of the next moment,
lips frozen by futility.
“ Let there be.”
Beyond all praise
There is only being
the ‘isness’ of life
peaceful and whole-shalom
the current, energy and soul
of all there is.
Sh’lama raba min shemaya
V’Hayim Alaynu v’al kol Yisrael:
“ May abundant heavenly peace, wholeness and life suffuse our lives.”
At the crossroads,
no signs, no paths, no maps, no guide
Too pooped to praise, heart hallelujah hollow,
Mind meandering in space,
Abandoned to mere imagination,
a reverie of peace.
Oseh shalom bimromav
hu yaaseh shalom,
alaynu v’al kol Yisrael(v’chol yoshvei tevel)
“ May the One whose uppermost realms
are fashioned with peace,
bestow peace below-a gift to Israel and
the entire human community.
Are not the heavens beyond hearing
hushed but for angelic sounds,
at night, sounds of praise
in the morning, silence,
a space for those below to praise .
night has come, the light of life
dimming over the horizon
until its final gasping rays
retire for eternity.
Is shalom soundless?
then we have death!
Bring down the shalom of
“pamalya shel maalah”-the family of angels
who know no rivalry, no contradiction, no weariness
only song, praise and love.
Make it possible, we pray,
so that hearts heal with words of the kaddish,
words of praise and gratitude, no matter what!
and with praise, the rays of each day’s dawn
will unveil the promise of tomorrow.
1.Bolsta, Hyla Shifra,The Illuminated Kaddish, Ktav Publishing House, 2012.
2.Lamm, Maurice,The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,Jonathan David Publishers, 1969.
3.Soloveitchik, J.B.,Out of the Whirlwind, Ktav Publishing House, 2003.
4.Wieseltier, Leon, Kaddish, Vintage, 2000.