Completing the year of mourning for my late father has brought forth an odd mix of diametrically opposed emotions.
Approaching the end of saying kaddish, I felt relieved — even glad — to be finished, but that didn’t for a second reduce the sense of sadness and loss. The 11 months of kaddish seemed so long at times, yet looking back it’s hard to believe it had passed so quickly. The thrice daily recitation was simultaneously a burdensome load and a tremendous honour and privilege — one I am especially grateful to have been able to perform, as my father was not able to do this for his own parents, who perished in the Holocaust.
The highly structured ritual of mourning provides a great comfort that guides me through the grieving process. They form a wonderful progression: from shiva, to shloshim, to the end of kaddish, to the end of mourning, and to the first yahrzeit (a month later because of the leap year). Each step is essential, and represents a ‘drop off point’ in both the intensity of grief, and in the particular restrictions and observances associated with each level. The biggest steps seem to be the end of kaddish, and the end of mourning, because they are very liberating in the removal of various constraints from my life, but they have also left a huge void.
For 11 months, my father was always on my mind, in my calendar by proxy three times a day as everything revolved around finding that next minyan. Another month, and the mourning period has concluded. The structured mourning is gone. So now what? What am I supposed to do next?
While spending some time far away after finishing kaddish, I reflected on the nature of the kaddish obligation, and its requirement to be recited with a minyan. That had me wondering: what other halachic obligations require other people? The question essentially became: can I be a good Jew living on a desert island?
Assuming I could procure the required materials, I could eat matzah on Pesach, blow shofar on Rosh Hashana, sit in a Sukkah and make a bracha on the lulav and etrog. All of these halachic obligations can be fulfilled without ever needing to interact with another human being.
The two obligations that I could not perform: say kaddish with a minyan, and fulfil the Purim mitzvot of mishlo’ach manot and matanot l’evyonim – gifts to friends and the poor. Why do just* these two halachic obligations require others?
The message here is the importance of community in Judaism: our grief is moderated by others, and our joy is incomplete without others.
So now what? Go live on a desert island (until Purim)?
Now, it’s up to me. Halacha has guided me up to this point, and now tells me that it’s time to cut the proverbial apron strings. Happy & sad. Long & short. Burden & honour. Liberty & emptiness. Experiencing all those emotions are part of the journey. And the journey continues.
For more in this series, see Shiva: sitting then getting up, And who before his time, ‘Hamakom’ as a Verb and Transactional Judaism, Celebrating Liberation without the one Liberated, Kaddish Club 2: chained to the amud, and But Who’s Counting.
* Footnote: there are a number of other mitzvot that require others, e.g. the general obligation to pray with a minyan, and chessed mitzvot like tzedakah, visiting the sick. However, those mitzvot are triggered by the existence of others nearby.