Less than a month ago, after losing my father OBM, I started saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer recited by mourners after the loss of a relative. Saying a prayer I have heard thousands of times in my life, helped me suddenly understand a powerful lesson about life and death, at a time this lesson is most needed.
The iconic Chinese philosopher, Lau Tzu, said once: “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from a different side.” Kaddish comes to teach us that life and death or deeply separated, and profoundly intertwined. The Kaddish is mostly about what takes place in this world. It highlights the power of life, the sanctity of this world, and that God’s name being “sanctified” and “glorified”, is something that takes place in this world.
The Kaddish highlights in a powerful way that at a time one might be tempted to obsess with the afterlife or perhaps lose faith in the material world, this world is where it all happens. It reminds us that even the legacy of those who are dead, depends on us the living, echoing a sentiment reflected later so beautifully by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address:”
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”
Kaddish reminds us that the only way to do justice to the deceased is “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced”. Lest we be tempted by the paralyzing gaze in the eyes of the angel of death, lest we leave ourselves to conclude, as Solomon did, that “Vanity of vanities, said Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”(Ecclesiastics 1:2) Lest we be tempted to resort to inaction believing that:” What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.”(Ibid), the Kaddish reminds us, “Yitgadal Ve’Yitkadash Shme-h Rabbah”, may God’s name be glorified.
No less than four times in the Kaddish, life is championed. From the first paragraph, cliched by the last one, it is all about life. The legacy of those who we lost, can only be continued through life.
The Kaddish reads as follows:
“Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.”
The prayer mentions “life” three times in the first paragraph. It then goes on to mention God’s glory, not in the Heavens, but here on earth. Even as we conclude the prayer the emphasis is on this world: “He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen” Even when speaking about what is in Heaven, we return immediately to this world. The Heavens remind us, of the peace we should aspire for in this world.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote once:” The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” Kaddish reminds us of the deep and bottomless divide between life and death. God’s name can be sanctified and exalted in this world—”the world He created as His will.”
And so, as I recite Kaddish daily, I am reminded of the day I stood at my father’s graveside on the Judean hills, near Jerusalem, reminding myself that sanctity, memory, peace, and comfort, are for us to find in this world—a world “He has created as his will”
I am reminded of how diametrically opposed Judaism is to the sentiment Russian dictator Joseph Stalin had famously expressed:” “Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.” Judaism sees life is the solution to all problems. No life-no solution. For sanctity to have meaning, it must take place in this world; for it to take place, God asks for our partnership.
Kaddish is an opportunity to think both of what is lost, and yet also of what remains. It reminds us that:” It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” It reminds us to do so, so that:” Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.”