Chaim Trachtman


Thursday December 28, 2022 was a normal quiet winter vacation day. The news was the usual mix of jockeying for position in the formation of the new Israel government, investigation of Trump’s taxes, football playoffs, and party planning. But for me it was not routine. After davening maariv on the 5th of Tevet, I did not say kaddish for the first time in 30 months. Since July 2020 when my father died through April 2021 when my mother died and then after February 2022 when my sister-in-law Beth died, I had been saying kaddish every day. For the first 20 months, I went to shul twice a day and said kaddish after every tefila. During the last 10 months, my wife Audrey and I split saying Kaddish for her sister —  she said it in the morning at shacharit and I said it at mincha and maariv.

Thirty months is a long time. Elephants carry their young for at most 22 months before giving birth. There is no halakhic ruling that I know of that is linked to the number 30 and I have not come up with a clever gematria because I am limited to the letters before lamed. Not unexpectedly, I was disoriented when I stopped  kaddish. The easy answer is, of course, what is the surprise? How could I avoid feeling discombobulated after abruptly stopping something that had been such a prominent feature of my day-to-day-life for such a  long time? There is no ramping up or tapering off schedule when saying kaddish. It is a digital phenomenon – on or off. Nothing is done to mark the completion of the task, no formal ritual or even recitation of a text. Everyone who says kaddish describes an unsettled feeling of rootlessness when they stop, and those emotions are powerful and understandable. But I do not think it fully accounts for what I have been experiencing since that late-December Thursday and I would like to try to explain myself.

My 30 months of kaddish were composed of two distinct periods. For the first 20 months, I felt the full obligation as a son to honor the memory of my father and mother and to recite kaddish every day without fail. I had no choice – it was a commandment and an integral component of the year-long mourning process for my parents. This strict unyielding requirement generated the obligatory angst when driving on Sunday afternoons or in rush hour traffic as the time for mincha approached. It was factored into decisions about where to vacation for nearly two years. It influenced the content and contour of my days and evenings for the entire time. However, over the last 10 months when I said kaddish with Audrey for her sister, I felt I was acting voluntarily. Although there is no formal requirement to say kaddish for a sibling beyond 30 days, Audrey wanted to show the same honor and respect to Beth that she would have received had Beth had a child who was mourning her passing. I volunteered to share the recitation of kaddish with Audrey so that I too could concretize my sense of loss at Beth’s passing. For me, it was an act of generosity as a husband and brother-in-law. What has surprised me is that I feel more disjointed after stopping the 10 months of kaddish for Beth than the 20 months for my parents. I think it may relate to the difference between commanded and voluntary actions.

According to the Rabbinic dictum, gadol metzuveh v’oseh meshe’ano metzuveh v’oshe (GMVMshEMV). Loosely translated, this means that someone who does something they have to do deserves more credit than someone who does the same thing voluntarily. This flies in the face of modern philosophy post-Kant in which the defining feature of moral behavior is that which is done based on the free and informed choice of the autonomous individual. In contrast, Kant disparaged Judaism as blind obedience to an arbitrary divine law. He viewed Jewish observance of the Torah as inferior and heteronomous, directed from outside. It is the opposite of an autonomous, inner-directed, moral code.

I wrestle with this question. At times, when the logistical difficulty of fulfilling the mitzvot becomes burdensome, I appreciate the Rabbinic sentiment, GMVMshEMV. The higher bailout threshold when one has to perform a task supports their assessment. You interrupt what you are doing to go to shul, you walk in the rain, you walk a little faster to get there on time. Of course, you deserve more credit. On the other hand, I am haunted by the story told about a woman who asked Rabbi JB Soloveitchik if she could wear a tallit when she davened. She explained that it was something she wanted to do, a mitzvah she wanted to fulfill. He suggested that she adopt the practice gradually and start by wearing a tallit without tzitzit for a few months. When she returned to take stock and discuss the matter further, he asked her how things were going. She said that the tallit had enhanced her religious experience of prayer. At that point, Rabbi Soloveitchik pointedly replied that a tallit without tzitzit had no authentic halakhic meaning and whatever benefit she felt while wearing the was not related to fulling the commandment but represented something else, something extraneous to the mitzva. With that, he forbade the woman from wearing a tallit with tzitzit. I am horrified that this woman’s desire to voluntarily wear a tallit was dismissed in such a manipulative way and that her own internal wish to fulfill the mitzva was rejected so harshly. On the third hand, I understand the need to be told what to do and I am reluctant to make a big deal about actually doing what I am called upon to do. Let me give a relevant example.

Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) is a large, lively, vibrant, and very heterogeneous congregation with a number of unique customs and practices. Among them is what they do on the last day when a person finishes saying kaddish. At the end davening, the rabbi turns to the person and says how meaningful it is that they came to shul every day and recited kaddish in memory of their loved one so diligently for a full year. I was in New Rochelle on the last day of kaddish for both of my parents and the rabbis there do not have this custom. I dodged this public commendation. I am all for positive feedback. I know that we often want and expect to be thanked even for the things we have to do. Moreover, I appreciate the genuine warmth and human connectedness that the KJ rabbis demonstrate when they extend their hands in support of the person who has all the mixed emotions of someone who has reached the end of the 11-month kaddish phase of the year of mourning. They provide strength and closure to the man or woman as they transition back to a routine year. But seen as a commandment, is there any intrinsic difference between the mitzva to say kaddish and observe Shabbat or to be straight in our financial dealings? Should rabbis turn to their congregants at Havdalah and give them a pat on the back for getting through a whole Shabbat without turning on the lights in their home? Or send out commendations on April 15th for filing their taxes honestly? Aren’t you supposed to just do what you have to do?

So, what is it – commanded or voluntary? The best answer I have is that the dichotomy is a false one. Religious life needs to be a combination of both. There has to be a willingness to accept and adhere as best as one can to Torah law because in some way the commandments express a divine insight into a path to the good life. But it needs to be enriched by a readiness to have an internally generated desire to perform the mitzvot. For divine oriented commandments, this element is expressed in hiddur mitzva. For those mitzvot between people, it is the effort to visit one more person in the hospital, or offer help to one more person in need. One without the other will fall short – either into a mindless ritualism or an unpredictable incoherent set of behaviors.

The importance of keeping opposing elements of religious practice in balance is a recurrent element in Jewish practice. It is manifest in so many Talmudic discussions. Is the enjoyment of the festival holidays meant to be directed horizontally to family and friends or vertically to God? Is the nazir a sinner or a saint? Is the law in accord with Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel? In all of these disputes, the two positions seem diametrically opposed to one another. However, preservation of the conflicting opinions and viewpoints implies that inflexible acceptance of one option will lead to error and misapplication of the law. Real life experience is too complicated and variegated to be fully encompassed by a single approach or outlook. Nature itself is constructed from opposing forces — wave-particle duality, Newtonian mechanics and action at a distance forces. Spiritual wisdom emerges from a thoughtful blending of divergent outlooks to match the exigencies of a given situation. Performance of mitzvot will be optimal if we take all the mutually disparate aspects of our religious code and our modes of behavior into account when we act. This ensures that they will have the greatest meaning to the one doing the mitzva and offer the greatest benefit for those to whom it is directed. I suggest that achieving that objective requires successfully balancing all the competing notions about the optimal approach to halakha. I will go one step further and propose that the specific ratio of the individual ingredients of each position for each person is dependent on genuine Socratic self-knowledge. This may begin to explain the disorientation I have been feeling at the end of saying kaddish for Beth.

Let me illustrate with the commanded-voluntary binary which weighs so heavily in my mind. I am not making a judgement about which approach is better. That is a fool’s errand. Rather, my objective is to answer the chemistry question – what mix of these two motivational substrates will lead to a productive religious reaction for me? I am aware that I do better when I know what is required of me and it is spelled out in advance. Left to me own devices, I am likely to fall short on the good-deeds-done column out of a mixture of inertia, obliviousness, self-interest, and social hesitancy. I am the kind of person who thrives when I adopt what Trish Harrison Warren recommends, a rule of life. I know that I should daven each day with a minyan and so it is now my nature is to go to shul. I have to stop working for 25 hours every seventh day. I worry that left to my own devices, I might skip shul or be unable to pull myself away completely from work and spend the day with family and friends. I understand the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 250:5) that communal needs should be covered by a mandatory progressive tax on all residents of the city rather than voluntary donations by the well-to-do and those who are better off.

Taking all this into consideration, when it came to the end of saying kaddish for my parents, I was transitioning from a period of two-layered command, saying kaddish in memory of my mother and father superimposed on davening each day with a minyan, to one-layer command, praying each day in shul. Yes, it was a quantitative change, but the elements were the same. Qualitatively, it felt as if nothing changed. In contrast, when I stopped reciting kaddish for Beth, I went from a period of command, daven daily, plus volitional, saying kaddish for Beth, to command alone. I was back to a command baseline, but the ingredients guiding my actions had changed, the proportions were altered. I am anxious that the end of the self-determined voluntary performance of saying kaddish in Beth’s memory may weaken my resolve to go to shul daily.

At this point, you will say, “But, Chaim you were going to shul every day before your parents  died. What were you afraid of? Why would you backslide?” Here I need to add a pertinent detail. Everybody who has said kaddish will commiserate about becoming a slave to the clock and the unending pressure to get to shul on time twice a day, every day without fail. Before my parents died, I was the person who came to shul 15 minutes after the start time regardless of whether it was 6:30 am, 8:00 am, or 9:15 am. Saying kaddish for 30 minutes has miraculously transformed me into someone who is in shul on time. At first, it was just an uncomfortable burden. But as the months passed, I came to appreciate that being in my seat on time and being able to pray with the community from start to finish was meaningful. I was more focused. I was more in the moment. For a few fleeting moments during each shacharit, mincha and maariv, I actually read the words with an attentive mind and heart. I am not a prayer person by nature and would much rather read or book or article or even study a text. But I could tell that even if I was not the best davener in the room I was a better davener on my private evaluation scale than I had ever been before saying kaddish.

That brings me to the end of Beth’s kaddish. In one sentence, I worry that without the impetus of my voluntary recitation of kaddish for her, I will lose this new focus and slip back to my old slightly late, slightly disjointed, and slightly perfunctory prayer. The psychological elements that led to my altered behavior had abruptly changed and I am worried that I will also change, for the worse.

Only time will tell how it turns out. A month has passed, and I am still on time to shul twice a day. I do not expect to maintain a perfect record, but I expect to be better than I was 2½ years ago. My attendance will not be perfect but hopefully my awareness of where I am and what I am doing will be enhanced. My private acts of prayer will be a little more honest — nothing terribly dramatic, but real nonetheless. More importantly I have not forgotten the bigger picture of the past 30 months of saying kaddish. Being observant is non-stop and demanding. There is no rational reason to do it at all unless it has meaning and is rewarding to you and all those around you. It is easy to say that it comes down to doing things right. But that may be too narrow a perspective. What I have learned over 30 months is that when we perform the mitzvot, from tzedakah to sitting in the sukkah, look inside first. Then give the commandment its due. Finally, add in a voluntary component of your choosing. Make the blend your own and hopefully the commanded act becomes a genuine part of who you are and enriches your life. Most people get this in 11 months.  I am just a slow learner.

About the Author
Chaim Trachtman is originally from Philadelphia. He is a pediatric nephrologist and is Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan and founder of RenalStrategies LLC. He retired from clinical practice at NYU Grossman School of Medicine where he was Professor of Pediatrics and chief of the division of nephrology. He is the PI for both NIH- and industry-sponsored observational cohort studies and clinical trials for patients with kidney disease. He is a board member of Yeshivat Maharat and Darkhei Noam. He edited a book entitled "Women and Men in Communal prayer (Ktav/JOFA)" that discusses partnership minyanim. His wife is the current President of AMIT and he has three daughters and six grandchildren.
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