A Kaddish vision …
I am an astronaut on a space walk, floating in space while tethered to the mothership. It is an image familiar to all of us who grew up with America’s space program. I am floating freely in the weightlessness of space, but also holding on to the hand of my mother who has died. She is not tethered to anything, and is connected to me only by the grasp of my hand. I know that the second I let go of her hand she’ll drift off, moving ever farther away into the void of deep space. But the ship’s commander is telling me that it’s time to come back in, and to do so, I must let go of my mother.
And then I stop daydreaming.
The end of my year of Kaddish for my late mother Lillian Skolnik, aleha hashalom, is at hand. I can’t say that the time has passed quickly, but the prospect of ending Kaddish has obviously played games with my subconscious.
To take the Kaddish responsibility seriously is to know its capacity to slow life down. The incessant need to be near an available minyan is unrelenting, and invades every moment of one’s consciousness. That is, I would suppose, exactly what it is supposed to do. Vacations and days off are planned around it, and business appointments, too. When you live in a densely populated Jewish area like central Queens, as I do, you learn exactly when and where all the available morning, afternoon and evening services are. Learning to factor them into your schedule becomes almost like a game. “I can catch the 3:30 p.m. Mincha there, and then the 11:30 p.m. Ma’ariv there,” and you feel quite accomplished when you make it through a complicated day without missing a service.
And so it is that, as I prepared to end this stage of grieving for my mother, I found myself wondering, what now?
On the one hand, I was more than ready to be relieved of the Kaddish responsibility, and the mourning rituals that go with it. I miss live music terribly, and have a list of movies that I’d still love to try and catch on a screen bigger than my television. And even though I was a regular at morning and evening minyan before my mother died and will be long after my formal mourning, I must admit that one of the first things I promised myself after the Kaddish is over was a morning to sleep late. Sounds trivial, I know, but not when you haven’t done it in a year…
On the other hand, I am loath to cede the right to be focused on my loss, and my memories, three times a day. Most people have a very short attention span when it comes to listening to other people’s pain. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing — just a truth. But God’s attention span is, as it were, timeless. God never tires of our tears, or our sadness. When I sat in synagogue morning, afternoon and evening and was alone with my sense of loss, I was not really alone. I was with God who is the healer of broken hearts, and all year it felt as if God waits for me to welcome me. God never says to me “it’s time to move on.”
And yet it is.
I have counseled countless people through their grieving process during the years of my rabbinate. I couldn’t possibly begin to count the number of times I have told them that time will ultimately bring them healing in ways that they cannot possibly imagine in the here and now. And it’s true, of course. Time is the great healer, and learning to feel the presence of God while at prayer is a great salve for deep heartache. I have also counseled people to use the synagogue as a safe space for their grief. No one will ever ask you to leave the synagogue for crying during a service.
I understand all this now more than ever. “Moving on” is not the same as letting go. It’s about coming back into the rhythm of life with gusto, and reclaiming the capacity to know and experience the joy of living with a full heart.
In order to do this, I also understand that I must re-enter the mothership and let go of my mother’s hand. The Commander is telling me that it’s time. Yes, it hurts to let go. The end of my Kaddish is a final, irreducible goodbye. But Song of Songs taught us long ago that love is as strong as death, and it endures beyond the realm of the physical. It is, indeed, time to move on … and to remember. n
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, and the incoming vice president of The Rabbinical Assembly. His online articles for The Jewish Week, under the heading “A Rabbi’s World,” appear weekly at http://weekly-rabbi.com.
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